Corruption in state government is endemic. Its roots go deep, and include the influence of Tammany Hall, the corrupt political machine that once dominated New York City.
It has also been cosseted by legions of elected officials who, predictably enough, seem to like things just as they are. Only last month, the Legislature refused to adopt reforms pushed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and others.
Now, the governor is moving on his own, naming a special commission to investigate public corruption in the state. It marks a change in approach that could reveal Albany’s soiled laundry in a more compelling and detailed way. That could finally shame the Legislature into acting.
Corruption has reached the highest levels of state government. Former State Comptroller Alan G. Hevesi served 20 months in prison after being convicted in a pay-to-play scheme involving the state pension fund. Former Senate Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno is facing a retrial after his initial conviction for “honest services” fraud was overturned by a federal appeals court. Although the offense of former Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer didn’t involve his office, he thought it was his right to cavort with prostitutes.
Much more has occurred among state legislators, most recently involving former Assemblyman Vito J. Lopez, who quit after accusations that he groped, harassed and threatened female staff members. Speaker Sheldon Silver tried to hush up the matter by secretly settling with Lopez’s early accusers – using taxpayer money.
The list is long and depressing and it grows every year. A sense of entitlement is woven into the very fabric of state government, and pulling those threads out is likely to take years, if not decades. That work begins with further disincentivizing corruption while also making it more difficult to accomplish and easier to detect. Those are the kinds of changes Cuomo’s bipartisan panel can facilitate.
The governor came to Buffalo on Wednesday to announce the formation of the commission, which he had pledged to create if lawmakers balked at campaign finance and ethics reforms. The panel will have clout.
Its members, who will include Erie County District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III and Makau W. Mutua, dean of the SUNY Buffalo Law School, are legal and law enforcement experts. They will be aided by high-powered advisers, including former New York City District Attorney Robert M. Morganthau and Barbara Bartoletti, longtime legislative director for the League of Women Voters of New York.
Commission members will be designated by Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman as deputy attorneys general, with the power to subpoena both documents and witnesses and to question witnesses under oath. Their mission is to review state laws, regulations and procedures involving unlawful and unethical conduct by public officials, as well as the electoral process and campaign finance laws.
Cuomo promised to attack Albany’s culture of corruption when he ran for governor three years ago. He has made efforts to fulfill that promise by seeking the cooperation of the Legislature, but the Legislature had other concerns. Now, he has taken matters into his own hands by empaneling a commission under the authority of the 1907 Moreland Act.
The commission itself won’t change laws, but it can act as a cudgel that induces recalcitrant legislators to respond. The panel’s report is due in December, just before another election year dawns for legislators and the governor. If lawmakers don’t act quickly and convincingly, the 2014 campaign season promises to be more interesting than usual.