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Chance for Albany Reform

Wed, 09/01/2021 - 16:39


Under a new governor, New York State has a chance at meaningful reform. Before allegations of Andrew M. Cuomo’s serial sexual harassment became known and before his Covid-19 nursing home deaths scandal, there was the moment when he shut down a supposedly independent corruption probe as it drew near his inner circle, terminating the Moreland Commission in 2014. Had it happened in any less of a dysfunctional state than New York, it might have been the end of a governor’s career. That it was not is proof positive of the way power is wielded in Albany and of public indifference. Forgetting its implications now that he is gone, however, would be a missed opportunity to restart the reform process.

Ranking states in terms of corruption is difficult, but if it were possible New York certainly could claim a top position. Among the notable convictions were the two that Sheldon Silver, the former Assembly speaker, had for taking bribes and money laundering. Dean G. Skelos, the former Republican State Senate majority leader, and his son were sentenced to jail for bribery, extortion, and conspiracy. Mr. Silver and Mr. Skelos, along with the governor, were the trio — called the three men in a room — who ruled Albany. Unless they agreed, nothing was going to happen. How Mr. Cuomo avoided indictments himself was something of a mystery, deepened especially after the convictions of some of his top aides.

Criminal and civil charges may be brought against the former governor in the sexual harassment cases. Charges could also be levied against his aides who sought to cover for him, including by retaliating against his victims and leaking personal employment records. Attorney General Letitia James and her staff will have their hands full investigating the nursing home deaths and Mr. Cuomo’s dodgy $5 million book deal as well.

Reform should begin with the establishment of a truly independent oversight board. Strengthening financial disclosure laws for public officials should be another immediate step. Greater clarity about state contracts would also help, and perhaps avoid future misuse like that in a $1 billion bid-rigging scheme involving the state’s economic development fund uncovered in 2018.

Cleaning up state government may require amending the New York Constitution. A bill pending in both the Senate and Assembly would create an agency, similar to the Commission on Judicial Conduct, to prosecute conflicts of interest, self-dealing, and breaches of public trust. The bill, sponsored by State Senator Liz Kruger of Manhattan, sits in a Senate committee, where its future is uncertain. New Yorkers tired of the old Albany should pressure their representatives to move it to a vote.

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