Crain’s New York Business: Lost opportunity on ethics [Editorial]

Lost opportunity on ethics

Crain’s New York Business

April 4, 2014

New Yorkers don’t trust their state legislators much, and with good reason: At least 30 have left office since 1999 because of transgressions ranging from inflating their expenses to sexual harassment to taking bribes. Countless other lawmakers have kept their seats despite illicit or unethical activity.

And beyond legislators’ criminal behavior, their legal activities also sow distrust—for example, promoting bills or steering funding on behalf of special interests, campaign contributors and other political patrons.

So there was great public support when Gov. Andrew Cuomo formed a Moreland Commission to investigate the Legislature. Alas, last week he agreed to terminate the commission in exchange for lawmakers’ passage of ethics reforms that are not likely to make much of a difference.

Mr. Cuomo’s plan all along was to use the commission as a cudgel to compel legislators to act. It was a reasonable strategy, but the governor settled for too little. In fact, it is clear that the Moreland Commission scared lawmakers far more than the reform package to which they agreed. Commission investigators had dug their teeth into a plethora of questionable dealings. One of its cases, for example, involved payments by Maimonides Medical Center to Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind’sadvertising company uncovered last year by Crain’s reporter Chris Bragg.

There is no guarantee that the cases being handed off to local prosecutors by the commission will be aggressively pursued. Many district attorneys in New York were elected with help from the very politicians targeted by these probes. Mr. Hikind, for one, delivered a key endorsement to the eventual winner of last year’s Brooklyn district attorney race.

The reforms did include some positive steps, such as making it illegal to offer or solicit a bribe (previously, the corrupt exchange actually had to be consummated). The state Board of Elections got new enforcement powers, and some penalties were stiffened. But the threat of punishment doesn’t deter politicians who don’t think they will be caught, which seems to be the prevailing sentiment in Albany. And the Board of Elections is a feckless body that, if history is any indication, will neuter its new enforcement counsel.

Ironically, the state lawmakers’ ethics reform deal may actually erode public trust. It certainly did among the many good-government groups across the state that ridiculed it last week. Mr. Cuomo and the Legislature must go back to the table and hammer out a bill that inspires voters with confidence that New York’s elected officials are acting in the public’s interest rather than their own.

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