We turn today to one of New York State's oldest oxymorons: Albany ethics. The legislature, having exhausted itself by adopting a budget on time, appears to be coasting toward a proposed June 20 adjournment. That would leave about three weeks for actions of substance. In the hopper are bills to limit increases in the property tax, to legalize gay marriage, to redraw the boundaries of congressional and legislative lines districts, and to require the disclosure of legislators' clients and earnings in addition to their state salaries. Several hundred matters of local importance also await action by the two houses.
One important proposal is in limbo. Governor Cuomo has sent an ethics package to the Senate and the Assembly, and is speaking up for it on a statewide tour. We quote from his statement:
New York State government used to be a symbol of integrity and performance, but we have lost that standard. To clean up the government and restore trust with New Yorkers, we need to pass a new ethics law that mandates transparency and full disclosure as well as a law that calls for a real independent monitor.
Among many reforms, the Governor's ethics reform agenda would:
* Require disclosure of clients doing business with the state that are represented by legislators before the state and disclosure of how much they get paid.
* Require the creation of an independent body to provide oversight and enforcement of ethics rules because, as we have seen in the past, self-policing does not work.
* Require lobbyists to disclose any business relationship with legislators in excess of $1,000.
* Strip pensions from those public officials convicted of a felony related to the abuse of their official duties.
The legislators have reacted to these proposals as an intrusion of roaches would to a can of Raid, or, if you prefer to avoid product placement, as Dracula would to a crucifix.
The current pretext for Speaker Silver's opposition to ethics reform is that creating an independent body to enforce ethics rules would interfere with the Assembly's exclusive authority to discipline its members, and therefore violate the principle of separation of powers between the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government. This excuse is comparable to the Senate's belated discovery, after all the Republicans signed pledges to support an independent redistricting commission, that such a panel could only be created by an amendment to the State Constitution which takes two years to adopt, and therefore could not take effect until after the 2020 census.
These "reasons" are so spurious as to be amusing, were it not for the fact that those who offer them dominate their legislative bodies, and, in any event, are acting in the interest of their members who also desire to avoid detection of and prosecution for conflicts of interest that may be engendered by their extracurricular activities. They do not want to go without the undisclosed loose change that they may pick up either for their acts or their failure to act, depending on the needs of the client. Some of our Solons are versatile; one could even say subtle. Many of them are hungry.
There are also principled and honest elected officials in the legislature, most of whom have little or no power. If they speak too loudly, they risk decapitation by their masters. But to be fair, it is only when a politician attains authority on his own that his ethical standards may truly be tested. Most never reach that stage, and their principal vice turns out to be remaining silent in the face of outrage. They feel that, by keeping quiet, they will advance to positions where they will be able to use their influence in the public interest. "As luck would have it" (Rule 17-A), the few salmon who swim that far upstream forget the high principles they espoused as alevin, fry, parr and smolts.
Around the state, the media are getting sick and tired of the legislature's evasion, procrastination and rationalization.
Today, Bill Hammond of the Daily News expresses his disgust at the situation in a column entitled "Your Outcries, Their Deaf Ears: The Public's Priorities Couldn't Be Clearer; Albany's Arrogance Couldn't Be More Profound." Hammond asks, rhetorically:
How much louder do the people of New York have to scream before the legislature starts listening?
The people overwhelmingly elected Gov. Cuomo with a mandate to fundamentally change how their infamously dysfunctional state government does business.
The people overwhelmingly back Cuomo's top two priorities -- cleaning up Albany sleaze and stemming relentless property tax hikes -- as repeatedly documented by opinion polls.
Yet the elected officials who supposedly represent those people stymie and stall, balk and bluster -- and accomplish nothing. They're hunkered down in the Capitol bubble, deaf to their constituents' unmistakable outcry for reform.
You can click here for the rest of Hammond's powerful column, which makes enormous sense to us.
A 2011 report, written for the Brennan Center for Justice by Lawrence Norden, Kelly Williams and John Travis and entitled Meaningful Ethics Reform for the 'New' Albany, encapsulates the long-ignored complaints of New York State's good government groups. It includes a list of the 14 members of the legislature who have been indicted, convicted or pleaded guilty to crimes in the last decade.
Those of you looking for fresh scandal may be disappointed by this article. The leaders of the Senate and Assembly, reflecting the fears and feelings of many of the members, support unlimited outside income for themselves, even though the handsome but undisclosed legal fees they demand and receive for their representation of clients doing business with the state are in fact often rewards for their political influence and access.
Those who represent plaintiffs are particularly shameless in shaping legislation for their personal benefit and fighting any proposal which could have a negative effect on their incomes. In matters of the purse, they fight with the tenacity of the National Rifle Association, keeping their cold, dead hands on their moneybelts.
Mayor Koch has attempted to breach this old boys' network with New York Uprising. Other groups have fought for reform for generations. Saints Matthew and Mark remind us that the poor will always be with us. The same applies to the predators, people who use public office for personal enrichment, while possessing the political power to make certain that the tainted transactions by which they do this are totally legal, under the laws they adopt.
We believe that, eventually, justice will prevail, and elected officials will no longer be able to receive secret income, particularly from those who have matters pending before the state of New York. The City Charter inhibits such transactions; the state legislature should do no less.
In the interest of your health, however, we advise you not to stand on one leg until the legislators succumb to the pangs of conscience, if any. Your interest in these matters is idealistic and intellectual. Theirs is personal. You vote once or twice a year, depending on primaries. They vote hundreds of times on bills, and there is a reason for each vote they cast: it can be the merits of an issue, submission to a leader, ignorance, naivete or self-interest. Motives vary with each vote and each legislator. The aggregate is an unwholesome brew.