Watchdogs: Extend session until real ethics reform is passed

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With only a few days remaining in the session, the Legislature is poised to recess without passing a single anti-corruption measure, say leading good-government groups, despite a “crime wave of corruption” that has engulfed the Capitol and sent the leaders of both the Assembly and Senate to prison.

“The silence is almost deafening. Despite unprecedented scandals that have toppled the state’s top legislative leaders, the governor and Legislature seem to be incapable of responding with comprehensive corruption-busting measures,” said Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group. “New Yorkers deserve more than rhetoric and hand wringing from our elected officials, they need real reforms to respond to what the U.S. Attorney has called a “culture of corruption.”

Earlier this year, former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, were both sentenced to prison for corruption in separate cases.

Their arrests sent shockwaves through the Capitol, leading reformers to believe that major reforms would be passed this session.

In January, government reform groups initially gathered to call on lawmakers to address the limited liability company “loophole;” better regulate the outside income of public officials; and increase transparency in the budget-making process.  The watchdog coalition says these items would most directly curtail the abuse of the campaign finance system, conflicts of interest, and opportunities for personal enrichment.

“It’s clear that treating limited liability companies more favorably than other businesses for campaign contribution purposes has blown a huge hole into New York’s already porous campaign finance system,” reads a statement issued Tuesday by Reinvent Albany, The New York Public Interest Research Group, the League of Women Voters’ New York chapter, Citizens Union, Common Cause New York and the Brennan Center for Justice. “We urge that LLC’s be treated like other businesses when it comes to contribution limits.”

The groups also charge that, far too often, corrupt officials have been using their public office to enrich themselves personally. “We urge that steps be taken to reduce the incentives for officials to “cash in” through their non-legislative employment.”

“The Legislature is on the cusp of concluding a six-month session without taking a single step forward on ethics reform,” said Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause/NY. “There’s still time to get it right, but if lawmakers won’t respond to their constituents’ demands, than voters will have to consider that information in the Fall.”

The opacity of New York’s budgetary decisions increases the risk of officials seeking to reward themselves or their friends through the appropriation of public dollars, they say. “A more open budget process will help boost New Yorkers’ confidence in decisions about how to spend public monies,” according to the groups’ joint statement.

“How many politicians must be taken away in handcuffs before the New York State legislature will pass laws to curb corruption? Politicians should serve the people not themselves. The Legislature must act now to restore the public’s trust in our state government.” Barbara Bartoletti, legislative director for the league of Women Voters of New York State.

In May, the Siena College Research Institute released a poll that found that 96 percent of New Yorkers think corruption is an “important” issue to deal with before the end of session, and 81 percent say it’s “very important”. Forty percent think the problem is more serious in the Legislature, while one-third think it’s worse in the Executive branch.

“The public knows something is very wrong in Albany. Months after both legislative leaders were convicted of corruption, the legislature has time for fantasy sports, mixed martial arts, and payday loans but no time for reforms,” said Liz Marcello, campaign manager for Reinvent Albany

If the Legislature fails to act, the governor must assert his leadership by prolonging the session until they do, says the coalition.

Dick Dadey, executive director, Citizens Union, said, “[The fact that] the 2016 legislative session is about to end and not one piece of ethics reform legislation has been enacted to address our state’s systemic corruption, even in light of the twin convictions of former legislative leaders Skelos and Silver, makes New York state a national disgrace. For the past ten years, our state has been focused on strengthening our system of ethics oversight and enforcement, and increasing the penalties for those convicted of corruption. But we have failed to address the causes of corruption and enact measures that would prevent them. We will not see less corruption in our state capitol until we begin to move money from our political system.”

On Monday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said passing new ethics reforms is a top end-of-session priority but offered no details on what measures were being discussed. Thursday is the last scheduled day of session.

“With two days left in the legislative session, somehow it still feels like Groundhog’s Day,” said DeNora M. Getachew, campaign manager and legislative counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice. “Legislators must act now to close the LLC loophole created by the board of elections. And, they should institute comprehensive campaign finance reform, including establishing a program that allows candidates to run competitive campaigns by matching small donations from everyday citizens.”

The groups are calling on the governor to extend the current session until substantial reforms are passed by lawmakers.