The Buffalo News: Legislators Should Act on Moreland Recommendations [Editorial]

Lawmakers can’t really expect New Yorkers to buy into their indignation

The Buffalo News

December 5, 2013

Some state legislators don’t know why they’re being painted with the broad brush of corruption by the Moreland Commission. We know why. It is because of the history of self-serving laws, anti-democratic rules, election trickery, bribery, kickbacks, tax evasion and embezzlement. And that’s the short list.

Albany has built a well-earned reputation of politicians using their offices for their own enrichment and that of their friends and family. The public has lost trust in the people, or as the governor referred, the “collective” who have been elected to office.

And it’s not just that. It’s also that lawmakers have created and sustained a system that is meant to insulate them from the influence of voters. The question isn’t why so many people distrust state legislators, it’s why legislators can’t figure out that they have caused this problem.

Instead of reacting defensively, lawmakers should embrace the report and work to make wholesale changes in a system that is steeped in a tradition of pervasive corruption, whether through political gerrymandering or outright crimes. Even honest lawmakers – and we know they are there – need to understand that they have sought election to an institution that has forfeited the respect of millions of New Yorkers – and for good reason.

Much of the work could begin with a comprehensive ethics overhaul, including enforcement of the state campaign finance and ethics laws.

The Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption was charged by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo back in July to probe systemic public corruption and the appearance of such in state government, political campaigns and elections in New York State. It is the continuation of Cuomo’s priority when he was state attorney general.

The commission’s ongoing investigations have reviewed millions of documents, issued subpoenas, interviewed dozens of witnesses and held open hearings with testimony from the public, law enforcement professionals and good government representatives. Sadly, it did not reveal anything that would entirely shock a public that has grown accustomed to watching a who’s who of politicians regularly get escorted into police cars.

As the report indicated, there are clear relationships between cash and legislative actions, gaps in campaign and outside income disclosure requirements, ineffective enforcement of the state’s election law, and deficiencies in the state penal law addressing public corruption. Therefore, the commission has recommended, and outside groups have supported, the need for public financing of campaigns.

Just as the New York Public Interest Research Group contends, the effort to establish a voluntary system of public financing of elections in New York is a critical component to change in Albany’s pay-to-play culture. The creation of an independent and aggressive regulator of the use of tax dollars would be necessary. Without meaningful oversight, none of the proposed changes will work.

The investigation revealed that the State Board of Elections lacks the structural independence, resources and will to enforce campaign finance laws. What the commission found in the “bipartisan” structure is a bipartisan agreement to do nothing or, as one former enforcement counsel said, to “do the basement.” The commission has recommended the creation of an independent election law enforcement agency. It’s worth supporting.

The problems uncovered by the commission must be addressed and its recommendations supported. The governor should use all of his institutional powers and the natural pressure of an election season in 2014 to force the campaign finance and ethics changes that are desperately needed to turn around Albany’s political culture.

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