Governor Andrew Cuomo came into office over six years ago pledging to clean up state government. Since then, Albany has seen levels of corruption that exceed even its own lofty standards for wrongdoing. Cuomo’s own ethics commission was scuttled by the governor himself before being taken over by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who went on to successfully prosecute the leaders of both state houses. Now, as Cuomo’s closest friend and former top advisor, Joseph Percoco, is about to be indicted for rigging bids on state contracts, the governor proposed a raft of ethics reforms on Wednesday that stand little chance of ever getting made into law.
In a meandering first-person meditation on the urgency of ethics reform, Cuomo framed the need for real change as a reflection of the national mood. “That fear of real problems, combined with mistrust about the government, is the toxic combination that this nation now faces,” Cuomo wrote in the statement, seemingly situating the corruption that has occurred in Albany during his own administration as part of larger, institutional failures nationwide.
Cuomo is calling for a separate, permanent inspector general for both SUNY and CUNY, which will report to the executive branch. Cuomo has repeatedly hammered CUNY for administrative cost-overruns, as he attempted to carve away $485 million from its budget this spring. Cuomo was perhaps emboldened by a state inspector general’s report released Wednesday, which found that ineffective management made CUNY “ripe for abuse,” and that millions had been given to top administrators “with no meaningful accountability.” This followed the very sudden resignation of City College president Lisa S. Coico last month, after the Times found she had spent $150,000 improperly.
In addition, Cuomo has proposed a “Chief Procurement Officer” whose job would be to review “all state contracts, with an eye towards eliminating any wrongdoing, conflicts of interest or collusion.” This post would also report directly to the executive branch.
But doesn’t New York already have an elected official whose job it is to do both of these things Cuomo has proposed?
Yes, that would be the state comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, who has been a thorn in Cuomo’s side for much of the past year. After DiNapoli audited and criticized the governor’s economic development programs in August (the same programs Bharara found to be rife with corruption), Cuomo cried that DiNapoli was playing partisanship even though they’re both Democrats.
“What you’re getting in an audit is that person’s opinion, right?” the governor told reporters back in August. “Sometimes I agree, sometimes I disagree, because it is only an opinion.” Now Cuomo is looking to create essentially a new comptroller, one that only answers to Cuomo himself.
On Tuesday, Cuomo appointees intentionally short-circuited a state commission that would have finally raised state lawmakers’ pay (their wages have been frozen since 1999). The Cuomo appointees recommended against a pay raise until legislators agreed to pass ethics reform that would limit outside income for lawmakers to 15 percent. Cuomo wants the lame-duck assembly to pass the legislation, which, again, is not a remote possibility, because they’re not even planning on meeting again.
Politicians from his own party criticized this meddling by the executive branch, and accused the governor of acting like a dictator.
“He has decided he no longer wants to work with the Legislature for any reason unless he decides what it’s going to be,” Assemblyman Michael DenDekker, a Democrat from Queens, told Politico. “This is not a dictatorship…We should do our own budget between the Assembly and Senate. I don’t think the governor’s being a willing and fair partner with the Legislative body.”
Limiting outside income would help head off conflicts-of-interest that have plagued the assembly. Both Democratic leader Sheldon Silver and Republican leader Dean Skelos took money from groups looking to win favor and contracts from the government. Currently, lawmakers receive a base pay of $79,500. Democrats have also been resistant to substantive ethics reform efforts in recent years, passing a weak law last year that barely limits who politicians can take money from.
A spokesman for Governor Cuomo did not respond to requests for comment.
Make no mistake, Cuomo isn’t interested in cleaning up Albany. He’s solely interested in consolidating power. And for a nation about to deal with the terrifying powers of an executive branch run amok, New York state lawmakers and voters would be best to resist this effort at every turn.