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Choosing a New Comptroller
January 16th, 2007

New York ended 2006 under a cloud of scandal. The states Comptroller resigned under pressure for misusing taxpayer dollars. Coupled with previous investigations, indictments and prison sentences for other officials, the resignation by the Comptroller meant that in the year 2006, New York reached a new ethical low.


But now the state must choose a new Comptroller. The Comptroller plays an important role in New York State government. The Comptroller is the states chief fiscal watchdog. The Comptroller invests the public employees pension funds, reviews and approves state spending, and monitors the spending of governmental agencies. The Comptroller is charged with examining state agencies and in some cases reveals problems with the way in which these entities run their programs.


The Governor runs the state agencies and, inevitably, the watchdog activities of the Comptroller can lead to conflict. Thats why the Comptroller is a separate, statewide elected official. The drafters of the state constitution wanted the executive branch to be monitored by someone who was independent of the Governor. In doing so, they hoped that the Comptroller would be willing to independently and accurately review agencies activities, even if it incurred the wrath of the Governor.


If the Governor appointed the Comptroller, the drafters felt that he or she would not have the independence necessary to monitor the spending of taxpayers dollars.


And thats why the constitution charges the Legislature with appointing the Comptrollers replacement in the event of a resignation. The framers wanted to make sure that the Legislature was in the dominant position to approve a replacement in order to maximize the new Comptrollers independence.


Under the state constitution, the Legislature meets in joint session to collectively vote to approve a replacement Comptroller. As a consequence, Democrats who have an overwhelming majority of the 212 state legislators will control the choice a new Comptroller with the lions share of the Democrats in the Assembly majority. Thats why you are hearing so much about how individuals interested in applying for Comptroller are jockeying for the support of the Speaker of the Assembly.


So what should be done? The Legislature should consider the following factors in choosing a new Comptroller:


Integrity. Given the circumstances of the previous Comptrollers departure, the new Comptroller must be widely viewed as a man or woman of integrity.


Independence. Given the Comptrollers watchdog role in state government, the replacement must clearly be independent of the Governor. But he or she must be viewed as independent of the Legislature as well. How can this be assessed? The new Comptroller must have a track record that shows that she or he is willing to stand up to the legislative leaders as well as the Governor.


Reform-mindedness. The former Comptroller was widely viewed as being innovative in monitoring programs run by state and local governments. The new Comptroller must continue to follow that path of innovation.


Keen understanding of state government. Through practice and under law, the Comptroller is deeply involved in the state budget process. Over the past few years, the Governor and the legislative leaders have stated that in the event that they cannot agree on how much money that state has to spend, they will agree to the Comptrollers estimate. In addition, the Comptroller must agree that the final budget is balanced. If he does not, legislators do not get paid.


Knowledge of the financial services industries. The Comptroller is the sole trustee of the $140 billion pension fund. And while the Comptrollers staff has extensive expertise in investing these monies, the Comptroller him- or herself must have a background in financial services since that is where much of the state pension monies are invested.


Of course politics will play a role, but New Yorkers must watch the process for choosing the new Comptroller to make sure that political considerations are not the major factors in the choice.

By on January 16, 2007, 8:58 am
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WHEN WILL THEY RESPOND?
October 25th, 2006

Its happened again. Another state legislator has been indicted on charges of political corruption. Of course, the legislator is presumed innocent until proven guilty and so Im not going to name him. But the charges against him are stunning. Here are some of the amazing ones:


that he not only illegally obtained $2.2 million from contractors, taxpayers and labor unions over the last decade with an almost rapacious glee, but also consistently treated his union brothers and sisters as serfs.

According to the indictment, he used their dues to pay for his country club membership and other personal expenses. It also charges that he had them pick up his garbage, collect his shoes at a shoe-shine shop, shovel his snow, hang his Christmas lights and catch rodents in his basement when there appeared to be a much larger one upstairs one who used stolen money to buy his wife a Mercedes-Benz worth $80,000, which is the combined salaries for four entry-level clerks in Civil Service.

In short, he has been charged with using his campaign contributions to enrich himself personally, charged with steering government contracts to cronies, charged with padding his legislative expenses with no-show jobs and with lying about his attendance in Albany and billed the state for travel that never occurred.


These charges are, of course, represent disgraceful behavior, yet every one of these allegations has shown up in other instances of Albany corruption. Despite previous convictions of lawmakers for political crimes and that led in some cases to prison sentences, New Yorks ethics law has remained weak and unenforced. The governor and the legislature have not acted in the past and so no reforms were passed.


The latest scandal should not only be an indictment of unethical behavior by one elected official, it should be an indictment of Albanys political culture. A culture that is far more interested in maintaining a clearly ethically challenged status quo than working for change.


Instead of overhauling the states ethics law after previous scandals, lawmakers chose to do nothing. Instead of strictly limiting the use of campaign contributions, they did nothing. Instead of boosting oversight of legislative expenses, they did nothing. Instead of establishing an aggressive ethics watchdog, lawmakers kept the current, weak system in place.


Despite a series of scandals in both the legislative and executive branches, lawmakers chose to leave an honor system in place. This latest scandal must force change.


The reforms must include:

  • Creation of an independent ethics commission, one with the authority to monitor, investigate and punish political crimes. Amazingly, New York has a model for such an agency, the state Lobbying Commission. Its hard to believe that lawmakers would be so unconcerned with ethics violations if David Grandeau of the Lobbying Commission were enforcing that law. Lobbyists quake in their boots when the Lobbying Commission comes calling, lawmakers should worry about their ethical transgressions in the same manner.

  • Strict limits on the use of campaign contributions. No legislator should even think that its OK to use campaign contributions for home remodeling, country club memberships, or trips abroad.

  • Strict standards of ethical behavior. For example, lawmakers should Combined with a tough enforcement office, clear guidelines for whats ethical ok and whats not, lawmakers would know that they are in Albany to do the peoples business, not enrich themselves.


The days of insider political trading, shady ethics and personal corruption must end once and for all. And the only way to ensure that the Albany has cleaned up its act is when clear and enforceable ethics standards are put in place. It looks like itll be up to the new governor and the legislature to make it happen.


Lets hope that this latest scandal marks the end of the bad old days in Albany.

By on October 25, 2006, 9:05 am
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THE ONE HUNDRED DAY TEST
October 11th, 2006

The major party candidates for governor will go at it again this week. New Yorkers should expect to hear the same themes they’ve heard in the last debate – one’s pledge to cut taxes, the other’s commitment to “values” and economic development.

And both candidates will cast themselves as reformers.

With so much at stake, I hope we’ll hear more. The state is at a crossroads, after years of dysfunctional government, controversies and scandals, New Yorkers want change.

Whoever gets elected, the first 100 days of the new administration will be critical. It is during that time the new governor will begin to set the tone for his administration. And it is during this time that he will have to create momentum for change.

Experts have observed that New York’s executive branch is one of the most – some say the most – powerful in the nation. At the debate this week, New Yorkers should expect to hear from the gubernatorial candidates the specific steps they will take to create real momentum for change in Albany.

Here are some examples:

The new governor could improve Albany’s ethical climate. He could use his existing powers to issue an executive order stating that any entity that wants a government contract must adhere to a new ethics code. This code could prohibit the use of campaign contributions that have helped fuel Albany’s “pay to play” culture. If a business wants access to government contracts, New Yorkers should demand in return more ethical behavior.

The new governor could require greater oversight of state spending. There has been much criticism of legislative additions to the budget – the spending of “member items” for example. The governor could require his agencies to strictly monitor such spending and order his budget office to issue regular reports evaluating this spending to ensure that these legislative add-ons to the budget yield real public benefits.

The new governor could add much needed “sunshine” to state government by issuing an executive order strengthening the state’s Freedom of Information Law. The new governor could order state agencies to adopt an “open door” policy when it comes to requests for information. He could tell the agencies to use the Internet in order to make it easier for New Yorkers to obtain information. He could use his power to establish a New York State “C-SPAN” as well.

The Pataki administration has long been criticized as too secretive. Its closed approach contributed to many of the controversies and scandals that have plagued the administration in recent years. An open government is a more honest government. A more open government is more accountable. The new governor can make this happen.

These are just a few examples of what a new governor could do to create real momentum for change. New Yorkers need to let the candidates know that, once elected, they will face a test – one that will be based on what occurs in the first 100 days. The test question will be this, “What have you accomplished in the first 100 days to change Albany.”

New Yorkers should hope to hear the answer to that question at the debate this week.

By on October 11, 2006, 9:15 am
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ACTIONS FOR CHANGE
September 18th, 2006

Candidates for governor are campaigning across the state promising to reform New York government. Whoever gets elected will have the power to deliver on those promises. New Yorks governor has constitutional powers that greatly exceed those enjoyed by the executives in other states. If the new governor chooses to tackle needed changes and to fight for reforms, New Yorkers soon could see real action on important issues.

However, in order for the new governor to have a real chance to change Albany, he will need to create momentum momentum based on the enactment of real reforms.

Immediate changes are unlikely in the normal legislative process. Either house could offer resistance sometimes the resistance will occur due to ideological differences, other times resistance will come from tactics designed to extract concessions. Therefore, it’s important that the new governor use his vast executive powers to make immediate changes changes that will jolt Albany out of its lethargy.

New York’s Executive Branch is extremely powerful arguably the most powerful in the nation. If the new governor uses that power to immediately implement important reforms, he will whet the publics appetite for more changes and make it extremely difficult for the legislative branch to stop other initiatives.

My colleagues at the New York Public Interest Research Group have offered a package of reforms that if embraced by the new governor could create that momentum. Those proposals most of which can be unilaterally accomplished by the new governor are included in a report entitled, Actions for Change. The report is available on the Internet at www.nypirg.org.

The first Actions for Change deal with governmental openness. The cornerstone of a representative democracy is the ability of the public to choose its representatives. In order for a democracy to work best, it is important that voters are educated on the options facing government policymakers. Without easy access to governmental information, the public cannot be adequately educated on those issues and therefore cannot knowledgeably vote for candidates or grant informed consent to policy decisions of its representatives.

The report recommends measures such as a gubernatorial executive order to require state agencies to follow the spirit not just the letter of New Yorks Freedom of Information Law and urges the creation of a C-SPAN to allow the televised access to coverage of governmental events.

Openness is important in ensuring real change in New York, but it is not enough. Mechanisms must be put in place to ensure that state government can be held to account for its actions.

Central to ensuring accountability is the establishment of new independent entities that will act as impartial watchdogs. These entities would be responsible to the public, not the political parties or political leadership of the state. In the same way Governor Theodore Roosevelt championed the civil service system, as a way to reduce cronyism in government, so should the new governor champion measures to reduce political interference and bolster oversight. Actions for Change offers recommendations such as urging the new governor to ensure that the head of the states budget office be free of political interference and calling for the creation of a new fiscal watchdog to monitor the quality and cost of health care.


Ultimately, it is the job of government to offer solutions to serious problems facing society. Of course, no government can solve every problem, but the public rightly expects government to tackle the most important ones if not to solve them, at least to try to minimize the size of the problem.

Those proposals contained in Actions for Change focus on the areas of governmental reform, environmental preservation, consumer protection and higher education.


To review the 50 recommendations, access them on the Internet at www.nypirg.org. And if you get the chance to discuss issues with candidates for state office, ask them what are their strategies for reforming New York.

By on September 18, 2006, 8:34 am
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RAISING THE ETHICAL BAR
August 10th, 2006

Call it counting your chickens before they hatch or getting ready just in case, gubernatorial candidate Eliot Spitzer has reportedly assembled a team to lay the groundwork for him to govern. According to Lloyd Constantine, the attorney who led Mr. Spitzers transition team when he was elected Attorney General in 1998, I think he wants to get in there and hit the ground running. Its very much that there is a shadow government in formation.

Of course the election has not yet occurred, but Mr. Constantines observations should prod New Yorkers into thinking about the new governors transition. Whoever is elected will appoint a transition team to organize the new administration in the period between the election and January 1, 2007. This transition team, in turn, will be heavily lobbied by special interests seeking favors.

Gubernatorial candidates should publicly state their plans for ensuring that the transition process is publicly accountable and free from special interest influence. The last time that a new governor established a transition team, controversies and scandals resulted.

In December 1994 the former CEO of tobacco giant Philip Morris met with the new governor-elect, George Pataki. For years, Philip Morris had endured defeats at the hand of the soon-to-be-former Governor Cuomo. The election of a pro-business Republican Governor offered a new opportunity.

In his follow-up letter to governor-elect Pataki, the tobacco CEO wrote:

It was a pleasure visiting with you last night. I trust that this will only be the beginning of what I know can be a mutually beneficial dialogue.

While we have no way of knowing how the governor-elect reacted to the meeting, two days later, a Philip Morris check for $25,000 was deposited in Patakis secret Inaugural Account. Then Philip Morris created a New York State Preemption Plan, its attempt to overturn smoking restrictions.

Years later, those internal documents became public as the result of litigation. They made it clear that Philip Morris had used the transition period to attempt to influence the new governor and had hatched a secret and illegal campaign to overturn state and local health laws. Those secret discussions started New York on a path that would ultimately lead to the biggest lobbying scandal in its history.

The refusal by Governor Pataki to make public donations to his 1994 inaugural activities (including the one from Philip Morris) also generated controversy. Originally, the governor stated that he would make the donations public, but then reneged. Given who contributed, you can see why the governor tried for secrecy. As if that were not enough, Pataki raised money to pay eye-popping amounts of money for his soon-to-be staff during the transition period.

The promises to reform Albany have to begin during the campaign, follow into the transition period and governing years. Candidates for governor should learn from history and adopt measures to ensure the integrity of the transition process. Here are two proposals to include:

1. Publicly disclose any donations to, and spending by, the transition team. Governor Patakis inaugural fund was opened only after years of litigation.

2. Establish a reporting process for lobbying of the transition team. Any groups seeking to influence the transition team must publicly report their activities.


Changing Albany starts with the governor. The governor must set the ethical bar high.

By on August 10, 2006, 5:42 pm
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MISSING FROM THE DEBATE
August 4th, 2006

“Global warming”: Two words you did not hear during the recent debate between Democratic gubernatorial hopefuls Eliot Spitzer and Tom Suozzi. Of course no one could expect that every issue would be covered during the one-hour debate hosted by New York City cable channel NY 1.

Indeed, many issues were not covered. No one asked about the state’s sky-high auto insurance premiums, second only to New Jersey. No one asked about the rising cost of higher education. No one asked about campaign financing or redistricting reforms.

Obviously, not all questions could be asked. But it is reasonable to expect that the most important questions would get asked.

And it’s hard to argue that global warming should be off the list. After all, global warming is changing the planet. Moreover, the burning of fossil fuels is not only the top environmental issue facing the planet, but the problems of the Middle East are exacerbated by oil money.

It is a global problem. It is an issue that should be at the top of the national agenda. Unfortunately, the Bush Administration has chosen to ignore the problem, so state decision-makers have to step into the policy vacuum.

New York State is facing serious problems resulting from the failure of policies to curb global warming. New Yorkers living in coastal areas are having a harder time obtaining insurance due to concerns about larger storms generated by climate change. Upstate lakes still suffer from acid rain. Fish cannot be eaten if they are caught in many lakes due to high mercury levels – which are the direct result of power plant emissions. And asthma levels are high too.

Beyond the environmental and health concerns, there are the security concerns. The nation’s reliance on foreign oil contributes to the threat posed by terrorists. And big power plants are vulnerable to terrorist attacks.

Clearly, these issues should be at the top of the agenda for any new governor. Yet no questions were asked.

New Yorkers should demand that gubernatorial candidates present their policies on these issues.

What energy sources will they encourage? Alternative energy sources such as wind and solar, or nuclear power?

Will they support policies that encourage the use of mass transit and fuel-efficient automobiles?

How will they monitor the impact of air pollution on New Yorkers’ health and the state’s environment?

How will they ensure that the public is adequately involved in these important decisions?

The response to the threat posed by global warming will determine the quality of life for the world. The new governor must advance an aggressive agenda that not only curbs the state’s contribution to global warming, but also provides a role model for the rest of the nation.

By on August 4, 2006, 2:37 pm
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The Legal Obstacle to Reform
July 10th, 2006

The US Supreme Court is a proven obstacle to political reform. In two recent decisions, the Court again overturned reform efforts one the redrawing of Congressional and legislative district lines in Texas, and the other Vermonts system of public financing of elections.

In the Texas decision, the Court struck down a challenge to the Tom DeLay-inspired redrawing of district lines. You may remember the Texas case. A few years ago, former US House of Representatives Majority Leader Tom Delay pushed the Texas legislature to redraw Congressional district lines. The reason for this unusual move districts lines are drawn once a decade, not twice was that DeLay was trying to solidify his partys hold on the U.S. House of Representatives. If the Texas legislature which is controlled by Republicans redrew the lines, it would likely lead to more Republican members of Congress. DeLay was successful and the changes in the Texas Congressional lines helped the Republicans keep their advantage in the House of Representatives.


DeLays moves were challenged as unconstitutional since the Texas legislatures mid-census redistricting was carried out solely to achieve partisan advantage. In its decision, the US Supreme Court conceded that one of the Congressional districts needed to be redrawn as it violated the rights of Hispanic voters there. However, it rejected the larger claim that the Texas Republicans had unconstitutionally engaged in partisan gerrymandering. Apparently, the Court is not interested in tackling the issue of partisan rigging of elections.

In the Vermont case, the Court reaffirmed its previous decisions that limits on contributions are generally constitutional. However, it struck down Vermonts public financing system arguing that the program mandated contribution limits were too low.


According to the Court, it is legal for legislative district lines to be rigged solely for partisan advantage. And it is also illegal for states to enact low campaign contribution limits.

So where does that leave reformers? Not in court, thats for sure. The legal system provides no realistic path to changing the nations elections mess. The only hope is through politics.

What remains clear is that reforms are needed.

Step 1 is to fight for legislation creating an independent redistricting commission. Combined with strict standards for the drawing of districts, an independent redistricting commission is the best way to ensure that antics like the one advanced by Tom DeLay cannot happen. Politicians should not be drawing the district lines. When they do, its an effort to rig elections. An independent commission leaves the mapmaking in the hands of those with the technical skills but not the conflict of interest.

Step 2 is to fight for a system of public financing of elections. The Courts action against the state of Vermont was based on contribution limits being too low it did not strike down public financing per se.

New York already has a system of public financing that could serve as a model for the state. The city of New York has a system that relies on public financing and it has been in place for over 15 years plenty of time to learn from their experiences.

Public financing of elections provides the best way for people of average means to run for office. The current system which is based on private donations either benefits the wealthy, or puts candidates in a terrible conflict when elected. That conflict stems from the inherent problem of relying on private donations, namely that those who give the money expect something in return. And they must get it or they wouldnt fork it over.

Unfortunately, the failure of the current governor to take the lead on these issues has resulted in little action. The Assembly has approved sweeping campaign finance changes, but done nothing on redistricting reform. The Senate has done nothing.

The new governor provides the best hope for change. New Yorks governor is far and away the most powerful political figure in the state. If he digs in, he can force a real debate over these issues. And if history is any guide, whoever gets elected in November is likely to get re-elected in four years. In that second term, if the governor has pledged himself to reform, he can refuse to approve the district lines that are to be drawn after the next Census in 2010.

His role in redistricting places him in a powerful position with legislative leaders. If you want Albany to change, pay close attention to what the candidates for governor have to say on these issues. The more specific the promise for reform, the more likely it will occur.

By on July 10, 2006, 12:27 pm
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THE SENATE SIDES WITH THE DRUG COMPANIES
June 27th, 2006

Most New Yorkers rarely get a glimpse into the ways of Albany. And while poll after poll documents voters growing unhappiness with state government, most have no idea how Albanys dysfunction directly affects their lives.


The 2006 session offered an eye-opening example. The skyrocketing cost of prescription drugs is an important issue to millions of New Yorkers and tens of millions of Americans. Nearly 3 million New Yorkers have no health insurance. Many more lack prescription drug coverage if they have insurance and most pay a deductible for their medicines.


So you would think that lawmakers would be seeking ways to reduce the cost of prescription drugs. It is, after all, an issue of great importance, and for some people it is an issue of life and death.


Unfortunately, legislation designed to reduce the cost of prescription drugs was blocked in the State Senate this past session. The proposal was a casualty of Albanys dysfunction.


The legislation allowed the state to create a prescription drugs buying pool. Essentially, the state would pool all of its drug purchasing power for the millions of New Yorkers who get their medicine through the state public employees, Medicaid beneficiaries, low- income seniors and other low-income families. The state would then negotiate with the drug companies meaning that if the companies wanted New York business, they would have to offer discounts.


The savings would be used to offer drug coverage to those who do not have it.


In addition, the program would be offered to employers. If they wanted to be part of the program and reduce their health costs, they would access medicines for their employees at the same low price.


By adding these companies and the uninsured, the states buying pool would get bigger. These increased numbers would increase the states leverage with the drug companies, which would mean even more money saved.


The legislation is modeled on similar programs run by states and some federal agencies, most notably the Veterans Administration. The VAs negotiations with the drug companies are so successful that on average the VA pays half the cost of prescription drugs sold in New York pharmacies.


Makes sense, right? It is the notion that every consumer already knows, you buy in bulk and you save.


The only problem is, of course, the drug companies. They hate the idea. They know that the savings eat into their considerable profits.


So the drug companies began to mobilize. They knew that if the legislation were put to a vote, it would pass with wide margins. So their plan was to go directly to the Senate and the Assembly leadership and try to block a public debate on the issue. They hired scores of lobbyists and funneled campaign contributions.


In the Assembly, the drug companies efforts failed. The bill passed with an overwhelming bipartisan majority.


But in the Senate, they succeeded. The drug companies went directly to Senator Bruno and his top staff and were able to block the issue from coming up for a vote.


As a result, the Senates opposition to a vote on this issue could cost New Yorkers hundreds of millions of dollars.


But there is hope. The Senate may return to consider issues before the November elections. Its time for New Yorkers to demand that lawmakers show their support for a smarter approach to government. An approach that will save money and help improve the publics health.


So far the Senate has chosen to side with the drug companies. Well soon see if they decide to stick with them through the election.

By on June 27, 2006, 9:11 am
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Heading Down The Homestretch
June 20th, 2006

This is it, the final days of the 2006 legislative session. And just like most sessions, the key issues remain unresolved, waiting to be wrapped up in the final moments of the session. One key reform strengthening the states ethics laws took one step closer to being part of the end of session frenzy when Assembly Speaker Silver advanced his policy package late last week.


Overall, the legislation covers an impressive number of topics. The Assembly bill tightens the states gift ban, restricts honoraria, makes it harder for legislative employees to immediately begin lobbying when they leave public service, and establishes ethics trainings for top public officials and lobbyists.


But the legislation does not cover all of the areas that need reform. The legislation does not call for the creation of an independent ethics commission for both the legislative and executive branches, or establish a ban on campaign fundraising by lobbyists and those receiving government contracts.


Moreover, the bill does not adequately address the problem caused by the personal use of campaign contributions by lawmakers. It is this problem that has stirred most of the complaints about Albanys ethics. Some lawmakers have used their campaign contributions to pay for luxury cars, trips to exotic locales and dinners with lobbyists.


The Assembly package recognizes the problem, but recommends a weak first step. The bill requires that the State Board of Elections issue rules that limit the personal use of campaign contributions and to hold public hearings on these regulations. Obviously, if the State Board issued tough regulations and used the hearings as a way bolster public support for that decision, this plan would be quite productive.


But there has been no evidence that the State Board would be so courageous. Thus it is likely that reliance on the State Board to point the way toward stronger ethics in this area will fail. And lawmakers will have to deal with this problem anyway.


Reformers have been encouraged by the Assembly package and are hoping that negotiations will begin. The hope is that through discussions with the Governor and the Senate, the Assembly package will be strengthened.


Unlike other major issues, ethics reform is not an area in which Republicans and Democrats have serious philosophic differences. It was the State Senate that initially passed a ban on gifts from lobbyists in 1999. The Governor last year called for a total ban on gifts from lobbyists.


And this year, Senate Republicans have advanced reform proposals. Senate Ethics Committee chair George Winner has proposed legislation banning gifts from lobbyists and Senate Elections Committee chair John Flanagan last week introduced legislation dramatically limiting the personal use of campaign contributions by lawmakers.


While there has been no action on these two proposals, it is clear that there is support for ethics reform in the Senate.


But the mere introduction of legislation does not mean that laws will result. It takes leadership, the kind of leadership that is all too often missing from these kinds of discussions.


The Assembly Speakers proposal should bring the issue of ethics reform to the table. There is support for elements of the plan in the Senate. The real issue is what will the Governor do? If the Governor uses his considerable influence to move this issue along, it may turn out that one of his important legacies will be a more ethical Albany.


It is a legacy worth the effort. New Yorkers will know soon if Albanys leaders are serious about strengthening state governments ethics.

By on June 20, 2006, 8:43 am
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6 “Working Days” Left
June 14th, 2006

With just6 “working days” left until the formal end of the legislative session, one key reform hangs over the heads of the Governor and legislative leaders ethics reform.

The ethics reform that cries out for action is elimination of the personal use of campaign contributions by elected officials. A sizable majority of state lawmakers rarely face a serious electoral challenge. So when they raise big campaign warchests, what do they do with the money? Too often its spent on activities that have nothing to do with running for office. Its spent on cars, trips, meals and other non-campaign activities.


Should donations given to lawmakers to campaign for office be spent on luxury cars, country club memberships or trips to exotic locales? Should lawmakers be allowed to collect taxpayer-provided subsidies to cover housing and meals when they are in Albany and then use campaign contributions to cover those very same meals as well?

No, they should not. And in much of the rest of the country, personal use of campaign funds by state lawmakers would not be allowed. In a recent survey released by civic groups, it was revealed that at least 30 states have stronger restrictions on the “personal use” of campaign money by elected officials than New York.

Why does it matter? The vast bulk of the campaign contributions come from groups with issues before government. Should these special interests be allowed to subsidize the lifestyles of policymakers? They should not. Yet in New York they are allowed to do so. According to what the State Board of Elections told the Albany Times Union about the personal use of campaign contributions by officeholders, “Unless you out-and-out stick it in your pocket and walk away, everything’s legal.”

It shouldn’t be.


Of course thats not the only ethics issue that needs to be changed. Lawmakers need to end Albanys pay to play culture by banning campaign contributions from lobbyists and those seeking government contracts. They need to tighten the states gift ban, prohibit honoraria, and improve ethics disclosures and training.

And lastly, lawmakers should create an independent ethics commission. Right now legislators meet in secret to hear ethics complaints against their colleagues. A commission in which the Governor appoints three of the five members investigates complaints against the executive branch. New Yorkers deserve an ethics cop that is independent and free from even the appearance of political pressure. An independent ethics commission provides just such an ethics cop.

Sixworking days is not a lot of time, but there is still a lot to accomplish. Lawmakers ran for re-election in 2004 promising to reform New York State. Time will tell if they deliver on those promises.

By on June 14, 2006, 8:47 am
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THE SYSTEM IS BROKEN
May 23rd, 2006

To those who pay close attention to state government, last weeks Quinnipiac poll was no surprise. The poll found that by a margin of 72 to 20 percent, New Yorkers believe that state government is broken and needs to be fixed. The only people surprised may be legislative leaders, who after two years of on time budgets, may have expected to see some positive feedback.


But there was none.


After two decades of late budgets, partisan infighting and legislative gridlock, the public expects more than on time budgets, they expect reform.


Even last years action on public authorities reform was not enough. Despite touting it as a major reform, the Governor and legislative leaders got another dose of bad news when a gubernatorial panel examining the new law determined that last years reform was not enough. Much more needs to be done.


That panel, created as part of the authority reform legislation, determined that there needs to be a truly independent authorities budget office to monitor the finances of state authorities. Last years reform legislation was supposed to create an independent budget office, but in reality the office is controlled by the Governor the person who also controls state authorities. This new budget office is hardly independent.


The scandals and controversies at state authorities including the now infamous Canal Corporation agreement to steer development rights to the Erie Canal for $30,000 to a favored developer have contributed mightily to the public disgust with Albany.


Last years authorities reform legislation was supposed to be a response to the mounting evidence of incompetence and corruption at state authorities. Sadly it was not and the panel led by the Governors lead man on authorities unanimously agreed that much more work is needed, including the creation of a truly independent budget office.


In one week the political parties will be holding their state conventions in order to agree on their election tickets for the Fall elections. It better be clear to Albanys political elite that action, not words, is what the public wants from incumbents running for re-election.


And so far, there has been too little action to match the rhetoric.


Of course, there are still six weeks for lawmakers to achieve some real reforms before they face the voters in November. Unfortunately, it appears that the Governor who will not be on the ballot will offer no help to the reform effort. For there to be any real progress, it will have to come from the legislative process.


And what are the issues that New Yorkers want addressed?


For starters, it would be a good idea for lawmakers to actually enact real reforms to bolster oversight of state authorities reforms that include creation of a truly independent authorities budget office.


In addition according to pollsters, New Yorkers by a 3 to 1 margin want legislation passed to create an independent redistricting commission to establish the boundaries of legislative districts, not politicians, as is now the case.


Also according to pollsters, a majority of New Yorkers believes that state legislators do not represent the publics best interests at the Capitol. Reforming New Yorks broken campaign finance system would help address this problem.


Its not too late. Lawmakers can act on these issues and other needed reforms before the session wraps next month.


Thats all for now. Ill be keeping an eye on the Capitol and will talk to you again next week.


By on May 23, 2006, 1:31 pm
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FAILING TO ACT
May 8th, 2006

Long Islands corruption scandal finally wrapped up last week with the sentencing of former Town of Islip Supervisor Pete McGowan. McGowan was convicted in March of shaking down campaign contributors for kickbacks and for illegally using his campaign account to fund personal activities, like vacations in Europe and Florida.


As part of his sentence, the 69 year-old McGowan was required to return $1.2 million in campaign contributions to donors, and spend 90 days in the slammer, serve 5 years probation and perform 420 hours of community service.


McGowans conviction is just another example of scandals and controversies that have erupted over the past few years regarding the misuse of campaign contributions. Former Assemblymember and Brooklyn Democratic leader Clarence Norman has been convicted for such misuse. And controversies have swirled around the Insurance Superintendent, current Senators and Assemblymembers for using their contributions to essentially subsidize their lifestyles through the leasing of luxury cars and trips to exotic locales.


You would think that lawmakers would, at a minimum, be holding news conferences, introducing bills and promising reforms.


But you would be wrong.


The mounting evidence of a political culture that has lost is moral compass has been ignored by Albanys elite.


Some have argued that the system has worked since McGowan got punished and it is an isolated incident. Some have argued that, while McGowans activities were clearly illegal, they see nothing inherently wrong with the use of campaign contributions for any activities related to their roles as elected officials. According to them, spending contributions on expensive SUVs for the entire two years that they are in office is fine. After all, they argue, they are on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week.


But such rationalizations ignore the inherent conflicts of interest. Most of the campaign money coming into the system originates with lobbyists and their clients. Allowing the use of campaign contributions for essentially personal spending allows special interests to subsidize the lifestyles of elected officials! What could be more of a conflict?


Only Assemblymember Bob Reilly, joined by Assemblymember Michael Fitzpatrick, have ventured to offer legislation that would sharply curtail the use of campaign contributions as a personal cookie jars.


At least so far, there has been no serious legislative reaction to the ethical mess in Albany. There have been no hearings on the issue; no news conferences of elected officials, no promise of action, nothing. They are simply hoping that the public will forget about it by November.


We cant let that happen.


Lawmakers need to hear from their constituents.


As lawmakers head down the legislative home stretch, its important that they feel public pressure to address some of the major problems facing New York State.

Help put pressure on state legislators by urging them to support meaningful campaign finance, redistricting, ethics and budget reforms.

By on May 8, 2006, 6:28 pm
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“One person, one vote”?
April 25th, 2006

One of the bedrocks of representative democracy is the concept of one person, one vote. The one person one vote principle traces to a 1962 US Supreme Court decision. At the time, legislative districts had wildly unequal numbers of people, and representatives from underpopulated rural districts controlled many state legislatures.


In the 1962 decision, Tennessee voters challenged their state’s unequal legislative districts, and the Court ordered Tennessee’s lines redrawn.


Two years later, the Court struck down Alabama’s legislative districts. The Court held that the constitution required that “as nearly as is practicable one man’s vote” must “be worth as much as another’s.”


And that is the basic point every vote should have the same weight as anyone elses.


In New York State, Congressional districts contain almost exactly the same populations. Yet when it comes to legislative districts, the situation is completely different.


State Senate districts have populations that range from as few as 290,000 citizens to districts with as many as 320,000! Assembly districts range in population from 121,000 to 133,000.


Why do Congressional districts have to contain equivalent populations while legislative districts do not? The Supreme Courts ruling allowed a range due to state constitutional issues that impact on legislative mapmaking, but do not have the same effect on Congressional lines.


As a result, New York mapmakers in 2002 maximized the allowable population range to further incumbency protection and to strengthen the Senate Republican majoritys and the Assembly Democratic majoritys control over their respective houses.


So the wide range in population is legal, but is it right? No.


Why should the concerns for incumbency protection and majority party rule trump the one person, one vote principle? They should not, and reformers are working to advance legislation (Assembly bill 6287, by Assemblyman Gianaris) to replace New Yorks system with one that empowers an independent redistricting commission to be the mapmaker instead of politicians.


Will legislators agree to this change? After all, they are the winners in the current system, changing it could put their political careers at peril.


While there is considerable legislative support for the Gianaris bill, it will take a supportive Governor to make the system change. And there is hope. Gubernatorial candidates Spitzer and Weld have publicly stated their support for creation of an independent redistricting commission.


The next Governor has to take a firm stand. He has to unequivocally state that he will not agree to new district lines unless an independent commission draws them a commission whose standards include requirements that district populations be of similar size and that redistricting is not used to protect incumbents or majority power.


On May 9th, this issue and others will be discussed at an Albany Reform NY Lobby Day, which will feature gubernatorial wannabes speaking about their reform proposals. People interested in attending the event can contact Common Cause at 1-800-300-8707 or www.commoncause.org/reformnyday.

By on April 25, 2006, 4:37 pm
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Bare knuckled budget battles
April 18th, 2006

The Governor dropped the bomb on state lawmakers when he issued large-scale vetoes of the state budget approved last month. The Governor justified his vetoes that total $2.9 billion since the budget approved by legislators spent too much and reformed too little.


Not only did he veto those measures, the Governor argued that even if lawmakers voted to override, he would ignore their actions in most cases. The Governor stated that $1.6 billion of the $2.9 billion he vetoed were due to unconstitutional actions by the legislature and as a result he would be justified in ignoring any new actions by the legislature.


Its a complicated situation, but essentially under the state constitution the Governor has unparalleled powers far beyond the powers of other Governors in the nation and the legislature is extremely limited in its ability to change the Governors proposed budget. In this case the Governor charged that the legislature illegally made changes and therefore even if lawmakers override his vetoes, he can ignore them.


The Governor has battled the legislature since his first days in office. Apparently hes going to finish his last term in the way he began by playing political hardball.


Unfortunately, as the gamesmanship over the budget plays out, real people get hurt. There is no budget agreement on spending hundreds of millions of dollars on programs to help the poor, hundreds of millions of dollars for the environment are in limbo, and property tax relief has been derailed.


College students could take a big hit too. Donald Navarro, for example, is a 28-year-old student at Queens College in New York City. Donald can afford to go to college by combining college financial aid and a job. But the Governors vetoes put his college career in jeopardy. Under the Governors plan, students attending college full-time would now have to get 15 credits per semester if they wanted to receive full financial aid. Donald cannot both work and attend school if he has to take 5 classes instead of the 4 he takes now. Donald says that if the Governor has his way, he will have to quit his job and take out more loans to make it through school.


Another potential victim of the Governors struggle with the legislature is Chris Johnson. Chris is a student at the State University School of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse. Chris is nearly finished with his undergraduate degree. All he needs is 13 credits in the Fall semester and hes done. But if the Governors plan stays in place, Chris will either have to take an additional class that he doesnt need (and take time to do well in that class), or take a reduction in financial aid.


While both Donald and Chris could be affected by the budget battle, their fates are in relatively good shape since the legislature can override the Governors cuts in these areas without fear that the Governor will ignore them. In the case of his cuts to college aid, the Governor is not arguing that these are constitutional issues. Consequently, if the legislature overrides the Governor, in this case he will comply with that action.


We hope.


You see sometimes the Governor has refused to follow the law if it suits him even when there is no constitutional question. For example, in the last two budgets the legislature approved with the Governors consent that the state collect taxes on sales to non-Indians making purchases on Indian reservations.


But the Governor told his Tax Department to ignore that law and thus it has not been enforced.


So you never know.


Obviously there has to be a better way. For whatever reason, the Governors hardball political tactics have made negotiating extremely difficult. And despite investing the Governor with vast budgetary powers that no other state Chief Executive has, New Yorks finances are a mess.


Change is coming this November. Hopefully, having a new player on the scene will lead to better fiscal results for the state. But until then, policymakers should act to ensure that people like Donald Navarro and Chris Johnson are not the casualties of Albanys bare-knuckled budget battles.

By on April 18, 2006, 7:32 pm
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Measuring Up
April 11th, 2006

Reform was in the air as the candidates for statewide office gathered at the Citizens Budget Commissions conference last weekend. The Citizens Budget Commission is a nonpartisan, New York City-based think tank funded by businesses that focuses on fiscal matters.


The first up were the Democratic candidates for attorney general. Richard Brodsky, an Assemblyman from Westchester, Mark Green, former New York City mayoral hopeful, Sean Patrick Maloney, a corporate attorney and former Clinton staffer, Denise ODonnell, former US Attorney from Buffalo, and Andrew Cuomo, former candidate for Governor, detailed their rationale for running for Attorney General and the reforms issues that they supported. The leading Republican candidate, Jeanine Pirro was invited, but did not attend.


A common theme was that the candidates pledged, if elected, to devote time and resources to prosecuting political crimes. They detailed their unflattering views of the way Albany operates and claimed an interest in using the office of Attorney General as a sort of ethics cop to investigate and punish state officials who violated ethics, lobbying or campaign finance laws. Their messages were surprising and a sad commentary on the state of politics in New York.


It says a lot that the crime fighting focus for these Attorney General hopefuls was on Albanys politics, not on street or corporate crimes.


The candidates for Governor had a broader view. Unlike the candidates for Attorney General, the gubernatorial candidates focused their attention of the fiscal woes of the state the issue that most stimulates members of the Citizens Budget Commission.


The broad theme among these candidates, Eliot Spitzer and Tom Suozzi for the Democrats, and John Faso and Bill Weld for the Republicans, was that New Yorks fiscal house is in disorder and through reforms and limits on spending, they pledged to clean things up. While it is not surprising that fiscal reforms were the focus of the candidates given the audience businesspeople it was interesting that there was a consensus that New York State is suffering from a deadly combination of high taxation, debt and pork.


The one person unhappiest with these analyses must be Governor Pataki. The Governor has been the leader of the state for nearly 12 years and it has been under his watch that the defects pointed out by the candidates corruption, incompetence and inefficiency were the focus of the day.


It cannot be comfortable for the Governor to receive these negative reviews of his legacy. Of course time will tell if these views become history, but he cant feel good about the first drafts being offered by these candidates.


But from New Yorkers perspective, it should be music to the ears. For decades, New York State has suffered from lackluster fiscal management and a political culture that stifles real electoral competition. It has gotten worse under Governor Pataki, but many of the problems precede him.


Unfortunately, the Governor did too little to tackle those problems.


The early rhetoric of the candidates is encouraging. If the statewide candidates are to believed, the status quo in Albany will be challenged in a manner that has not been seen in a generation.


Yet, candidates for office have been known to suffer from selective amnesia once elected. Voters must demand that candidates offer specific remedies for the problems plagued the state. The vaguer the promise before the election, the more likely it will not be fulfilled after the election.


The rhetoric is comforting, but as the election gets closer every voter should demand specifics. If they get it, maybe Albany will open up.


Thats all for now. Ill be keeping an eye on the Capitol and will talk to you again next week.

By on April 11, 2006, 2:06 pm
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“Spinning the budget”
April 3rd, 2006

SPINNING THE BUDGET

They did it again. State lawmakers passed a budget on time for the second year in a row. After two decades of late budgets some months late its a remarkable turn of events. But before reformers pop open the Champagne, just remember, this is what is supposed to happen. Budgets are supposed to be in place at the beginning of the fiscal year. When you go to work, youre expected to be there on time. No one would tolerate two decades of lateness.


So while on time budgets are improvements over late ones, they are not really reforms.


Unfortunately, the budget saga is not over. State legislators dramatically changed the Governors proposed budget. Those changes are subject to the Governors veto pen and so until the Governor acts, the final budget will not be in place.


Hopefully, the Governor will not strike important improvements in the state budget. The legislature, for example, rejected the Governors proposal to raise public college tuition despite the fact that the state may well have a $4 billion surplus this year.


The legislature also rejected the Governors proposal to slash financial aid for college students and instead hiked aid by 10 percent for needy students. They also added hundreds of more full-time faculty at the State and City Universities, while boosting state general support. For advocates, the legislatures higher education budget was the best in a two decades.


The legislature also took a first step toward addressing the court order mandating more spending for elementary and secondary schools. While the legislature earmarked over $1 billion in new spending for schools, that was still less than recommended by the courts. But the legislative budget allowed for an increase in state-supported borrowing of over $11 billion for the rebuilding of crumbling schools.


The legislature also approved billions of dollars in tax cuts. According to the legislature, local property taxpayers could receive a reduction of between $300 and $800 and families with school-aged children could receive a tax credit of up to $330.


So why is the Governor threatening vetoes? The Governor is arguing that while the legislative budget may be balanced this year, the additional spending will drive large deficits next year and the year after. The Governor has argued that the legislative budget spends nearly $5 billion more than his budget did a claim that is rejected by legislative leaders.


Further confusing the issue, the Senate Majority Leader and the Speaker have two different estimates on how much their budget spends.


The duel over the numbers is at the heart of the Governors opposition to the legislatures budget proposal. The Governor has argued that the legislatures budget spends too much and reforms too little.


But how is the public supposed to know if the Governor is right? The Governor made similar claims about last years budget, and the state ended up with a $4 billion surplus. And the Governor has a history of using the states financial data for his own political benefit. In the 2002 election, the Governor dismissed concerns raised about a looming budget deficit. He was wrong.


However this years budget finally plays out, one thing is sure, the state needs an Independent Budget Office like the one in Washington DC to offer unbiased financial analysis. It may not end the budgetary games, but at least well know whos numbers are more likely to be right.

By on April 3, 2006, 8:27 am
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Unscripted Moments In A Budget By April Fools
March 27th, 2006

Its been interesting watching the debate over the enactment of a state budget. While a lot of the debate continues behind closed doors, it is nothing like it used to be.

Until the last few years, very little was known about the substance of budget negotiations. Like waiting for the white smoke to appear over the Vatican proclaiming the choice of a new Pope, New Yorkers waited for the announced results of budget items. And the wait was often hardly worth it. Not only were budgets enacted late, they usually resulted in millions in pork spending found in slush funds, increases in state debt and legislative gridlock on important non-budget issues.

The result was 20 years of late budgets and an angry electorate. So last year in an effort to placate voters, lawmakers tried something new. Some of the budget discussions were held in public.

In 2005, state lawmakers were able to agree on a budget by the beginning of the fiscal year for the first time in a generation.

This year, lawmakers are at it again making an attempt to get the budget finished by April 1st.

Legislators are holding public meetings in which representatives of the Senate and Assembly convene to discuss specific portions of the budget. There are 10 subcommittees that are assigned budget areas to resolve. These subcommittees hold meetings to try to come to an agreement on specific issues — for example state aid for schools, spending on health care and the environment. At each meeting 10 legislators 5 from the Senate and 5 from the Assembly meet to discuss policy options.

Once the subcommittee resolves its work - either by compromise or by not agreeing on a particular topic - it presents it to a leadership committee jointly headed by Assembly Speaker Silver and Senate Majority Leader Bruno. This leadership committee debates issues that are unresolved.

Unlike real working meetings, these budget discussions are almost always scripted. No real work is actually done in public. In the public debate, legislators usually discuss their respective houses perspective on a topic, identify areas of agreement and disagreement, and then assign the staff to work behind closed doors to try to figure out a compromise. The public is not invited into these private meetings. But as you can guess lobbyists play a big role.

This year, though, you can watch the public proceedings on cable television unfortunately only on a digital channel.

So is the process better? Yes. In a democracy, policymakers should be conducting the publics business in public. How can the public be informed if they are in the dark?

Moreover, these public meetings do help move the process. That lawmakers must hold public meetings to report on their progress creates new pressure that motivates legislators to produce results.

And sometimes those few unscripted moments have an effect. Sunday night, for example, there was such an unscripted debate between the Assembly Speaker and a Senate Republican from Long Island. The debate was over how best to attack fraud in the states Medicaid program. The Assembly Speaker made a substantive and extremely compelling argument in support of a provision to grant whistleblowers the right to go to court when they identify fraud in government programs.

Whether the Speakers argument will change policy is unclear at this time, but the discussion clearly has forced a serious debate on this issue.

Is the process really open? No. Far too much of the real decisions are made behind closed doors. In addition, meetings are often held with virtually no public notice and there are no published agendas.

Are the budgets that are approved better? Hard to say. They certainly dont seem to be worse.

But the process is an improvement over the bad old days. New Yorkers should demand that candidates discuss details of how they plan to make the states budget process more open and accountable.

By on March 27, 2006, 9:38 am
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Limiting Lobbyists — But Allowing Campaign $ To Pay For Officials’ Swimming Pools And Cellphones!
March 20th, 2006

Government ethics in New York took one step forward in March. The New York Lobbying Commission ruled that lobbyists are restricted to giving no more than $75 total in gifts per policymaker, per year. This is a big step forward from the interpretation that allowed lobbyists to give no more than $75 per incident, even if such incidents occurred on the same day.

Despite overwhelming public support for a gift ban (a recent poll showed New York voters in support by a more than 4 to 1 margin), lawmakers refused to act. Into that void stepped the Lobbying Commission, which took upon itself strengthening the states ethics within the powers granted to it under the lobbying law. The Lobbying Commission deserves credit for taking this bold move.

The new rule not only covers state lawmakers and Albanys lobbyists, it applies to officials and lobbyists at the local governmental level as well.

Can reformers now declare victory and go home? Unfortunately, no. Lobbyists will be tempted to have “campaign fundraising dinners” in an effort to circumvent the Commission’s restriction. And with a loophole-riddled campaign finance law coupled with lax enforcement by the Board of Elections, such dinners will be a tempting target.

It is here that New York has taken one step back. It turns out that the campaign finance loophole that could allow campaign fundraising dinners is huge and has animpact onspending far beyond meals. For example, it was recently reported that current Insurance Superintendent Howard Mills is raising — and spending — campaign contributions even though he’s not a candidate for office!

Superintendent Mills, a former Assemblyman and US Senator Schumers opponent in 2004, continues to use his old Assembly campaign account to pay for meals, cellphone bills, and monthly car payments.

New Yorks election law does not allow campaign funds to be spent on personal uses “unrelated to a political campaign or the holding of a public office.” Lawmakers have spent campaign funds on everything from trips to faraway vacations, country club memberships, box seats at sporting events, even a swimming pool cover and criminal defense lawyers. Lawmakers argue that such spending is OK as long as it is remotely connected to their roles as public officials.

How can the states Insurance Superintendent raise and spend campaign contributions when he is not a candidate for office? Only if the state law is a joke and the governor doesnt seem to care.

New York should not allow campaign funds to be used to subsidize lawmakers lifestyles. If you’re not running for office, you should not be able to use your public office to raise and spend campaign contributions. If you’re a lawmaker, you shouldn’t be allowed to spend your campaign contributions on events with lobbyists. If you’re raising campaign contributions, you should spend it on campaigning — not personal expenses.

But until the law is changed, Governor George Pataki must raise the ethical bar. He should order all of his Cabinet-level officials to close all campaign accounts and donate any proceeds. He should then introduce legislation to shut down the personal use campaign finance loophole..

New Yorkers deserve a state government that continues to march toward openness and stronger ethics, not one that shuffles back and forth. Only Governor Pataki has the power to lead that march. He should take the lead.

By on March 20, 2006, 10:20 am
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On Kickbacks and Sunshine Week
March 14th, 2006

When the late Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis stated, Sunlight is the best disinfectant, he was of course referring to the development of public polices, not opining on health practices. This week celebrates Sunshine Week the national effort to ensure that American democracy conducts its business openly. Brandeiss sentiments are the cornerstone of the federal governments Freedom of Information Act as well as versions of it at the state level. Simply put, it was Brandeiss view that an open government is a more accountable, and less easily corrupted, government.

Americans support open government, but their enthusiasm is often eroded by politicians claims that openness can help the nations enemies. Clearly one good example is the effort by the Bush Administration to conduct its activities in secret and then justifying such secrecy as due to the threat posed by terrorists. While there can be no doubt that the nation should debate just how open society should be, there can also be no doubt that there is simply no way to be an informed citizen unless you have access to important governmental information.

An ignorant citizenry is easily manipulated by powerful special interests that seek to manipulate public opinion based on emotional, poll-tested, reactions, since there is no real way for voters to check the facts.

Secrecy also creates a breeding ground for corruption; openness is an important part of ensuring that governmental officials are acting in the best interests of the public.

But openness is not enough either. Someone must be empowered to take a stand against wrongdoers.

A good example of the need for this combination is the latest political corruption scandal in New York State.

Last week one of the states leading Republicans, Peter McGowan the Supervisor of the Town of Islip on Long Island, pled guilty to charges of political corruption. As part of his plea, McGowan admitted to taking kickbacks on five separate occasions from 2000 through 2004.

Boiled down to its essential elements, McGowan was falsely inflating his campaign bills and then deposited the excess money in his own personal bank account. Those kickbacks included big money one check was for $20,000, another for $10,000 and other amounts totaling $52,000 in all.

According to the Suffolk County District Attorney, McGowan was demanding that vendors pay the higher amount or they wouldnt get any more campaign work.

In addition, McGowan was convicted of misspending campaign funds including $30,000 on a vacation to Ireland and numerous vacations to Florida. In addition, the Long Island newspaper Newsday found that McGowan had spent campaign money on other personal items such as a lease for a Mercedes Benz. As part of the plea, McGowan will return nearly $1.2 million in contributions to his donors.

Why would such a powerful, and wealthy, politician do such a thing? Clearly, he did not think that the kickbacks would ever be discovered, but his misuse of campaign finance funds was hidden in plain sight in his campaign finance disclosures. Yet, McGowan had no fear of the enforcer, the State Board of Elections. According to the Suffolk County DA, The way the law is written now, if an expense in any way, by any stretch of the imagination can be related to a campaign, the Board of Elections allows it.

It took investigations by Newsday and the Suffolk County DAs office to bring McGowan to justice. There was no enforcement effort by the Board of Elections.

In keeping with Sunshine Week, New Yorkers should demand that state government operate in the open, that its records be easily accessible, and that tough ethical standards be enforced.

One good place to start would be for the governor to react to the Long Island scandal by offering legislation that cracks down on the misuse of campaign finance funds both illegally and legally and creates a new entity to enforce those standards.

Let the sunshine in and make sure that someone is watching.

By on March 14, 2006, 4:39 pm
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Gotham Gazette is published by Citizens Union Foundation and is made possible by support from the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Altman Foundation,the Fund for the City of New York and donors to Citizens Union Foundation. Please consider supporting Citizens Union Foundation's public education programs. Critical early support to Gotham Gazette was provided by the Charles H. Revson Foundation, Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

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