The Journal News: Lawmakers Must Get Serious About Ethics Reform [Editorial]

State lawmakers must get serious on ethics reform

The Journal News

May 8, 2013

It was called a “public hearing,” but this week’s Senate committee hearing on campaign finance reform was anything but. It was invitation only. Behind closed doors. In a small room. It wasn’t even pretending to reform.

The public likely was not distracted by Tuesday’s show, such as it was. On Wednesday, court documents revealed the names of six Senate Democrats — including Ruth Hassell-Thompson of Mount Vernon — who were among the nine individuals secretly recorded by informant ex-Sen. Shirley Huntley, D-Queens, who faces sentencing Thursday for public corruption.

In addition to the senators — Eric Adams, John Sampson, Velmanette Montgomery, Jose Peralta and Malcolm Smith, all of New York City, and Hassell-Thompson — the others recorded and photographed were New York City Councilman Rubin Wills, former Smith staffer Curtis Taylor and Melvin Lowe, a former consultant to state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.

Smith and Sampson, once among the most powerful Democrats in the Senate, already face corruption charges, and there is every indication they won’t be the last; a separate court document filed Tuesday revealed eight of the nine individuals recorded by Huntley are under investigation. There has been no further clarification from federal prosecutors.

So the serious-minded in New York have been properly motivated to discuss ways to curtail the serial corruption in Albany, where a steady stream of Democrats and Republicans have been convicted of corruption charges. (See our recent Editorial Spotlight interview on the subject at editorialspotlight.) Tuesday’s committee hearing, however, was not up to the challenge.

The Republican-led Senate Elections Committee’s hearing excluded members of the public, and some reporters too. Even those with expertise on the subject — including leaders at Common Cause NY and New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice — were left outside the hearing room.

Make a move

What the GOP hearing set out to do is to disparage New York City’s campaign financing method, which has been been offered up as a model for statewide election reform. The city’s public financing system offers 6-to-1 public matching funds for small donations, which aims to curb the influence of big-money donors and help challengers contend against the entrenched.

The Republicans, however, prefer the status quo to public financing, openly gloating about the foibles of city Democrats like Smith, who faces charges that he tried to bribe his way onto the GOP ballot for mayor — putting himself in line to raise campaign cash sextupled by public financing.

But their fraternity — ex-Sens. Joseph Bruno, Vincent Leibell and Nick Spano, among them — also has been bruised by corruption. The GOP has to come up with more reform ideas than “no,” and it needs to give a fair hearing to other reasonable ideas — like public financing.

Another hearing

The breakaway Independent Democratic Conference — which shares power with the GOP in the Senate — held its own hearing on campaign and ethics reform Wednesday.

Its proposals include creating a public financing system that matches small donations and bans corporate contributions, empowering the state attorney general and an independent campaign finance board with power to enforce elections laws, and changing the way candidates earn “cross endorsements” by minor parties by ending the “Wilson Pakula” certificates that let party leaders hand out their party lines.

In a Community View on Wednesday (see, Sen. Jeffrey Klein, who leads the IDC and co-leads the Senate, and Sen. David Carlucci invited residents to a forum in Valley Cottage to hear experts in campaign-finance reform explain their ideas. A real, and public, discussion took place. The IDC needs to do more to get its Senate leadership partners to listen — and act — on corruption reform.

Meanwhile, waiting in the wings is Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has his own ethics reform proposals.

He said Wednesday that inaction by the Legislature would be a “lost opportunity” to repair the government. He threatened to unleash a special investigation panel — known as a Moreland Commission — to seek solutions, if lawmakers fail to act.

“I am not willing to allow the public trust to be shaken in state government,” Cuomo told reporters Wednesday, as quoted by The Daily News. “As I’ve said before, this is a relationship with the citizens. If they don’t trust the state government, if they don’t trust their elected officials, the government has a diminished capacity and I don’t want the capacity diminished.”

It really is too late for that.

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