New York’s attorney general has called for a host of reforms to end Albany’s centuries of public corruption and repeated his request that Gov. Andrew Cuomo authorize him to prosecute those cases.
Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, in a Monday night speech at a Citizens Union forum at New York Law School, called for a ban on outside income for state legislators. He said recent ethics reforms have followed the usual pattern to simply “tinker at the margins” following a scandal and thereby quell outrage until the next scandal.
“Inviting legislators to have outside jobs invites corruption,” Schneiderman said. He proposed raising their $79,500 pay for what’s considered part-time work to somewhere between the $112,500 New York City council members are paid and the $174,000 annual salaries of congressmen.
Cuomo has proposed strengthening outside income reporting but no outright ban. The governor’s office declined to comment Tuesday on Schneiderman’s remarks.
The most recent scandal involves former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Manhattan lawmaker who led that Democrat-controlled chamber for 20 years. Federal prosecutors charged him with taking nearly $4 million in kickbacks from law firms that benefited indirectly from grants he authorized to a medical clinic and real estate legislation. He is keeping his Assembly seat and has said he will be exonerated.
The attorney general also proposed lengthening the 213 legislators’ terms from two years to four, to curb campaigning, while closing campaign finance loophole that lets donors skirt contribution limits by creating an LLC, or limited liability company. He would end per diem expense payments to legislators, requiring they get reimbursed for actual travel costs, subject to a cap.
Schneiderman said his office lacks “original jurisdiction” to pursue public corruption cases on its own and has begun working with the state comptroller, who refers cases to the state attorney general’s office when his auditors unearth financial wrongdoing. Such referrals have led to more than 60 cases against state and local officials and their cronies.
The state attorney general’s office can prosecute public corruption cases with a referral from another office. Such cases more often are handled by federal prosecutors and sometimes by county district attorneys.
“I have asked Gov. Cuomo to grant a general referral: A standing order to investigate and prosecute any case of public corruption, which he supported when he was attorney general, and which, as governor, he can grant me with the stroke of a pen,” he said. “My request was denied.”
In a public letter in 2010, Steven Cohen, then chief of staff to Gov.-elect Cuomo, wrote that the governor didn’t have the legal authority “to broadly delegate prosecution of corruption in the Legislature to the attorney general.”
The attorney general’s office has a standing referral from the state Health Department to prosecute Medicaid fraud whenever it finds evidence without having to go back for new referrals, Schneiderman spokesman Matt Mittenhall said.
Schneiderman is a former Democratic state senator from Manhattan. His office in 2012 brought charges against state Sen. Shirley Huntley, a Queens Democrat, for conspiring in a scheme to use state grants to benefit associates in a nonprofit group she founded.
Cuomo’s ethics reforms include requiring lawmakers to detail their outside income and submit receipts for their daily food and lodging expenses, which he has embedded in his budget proposal for the fiscal year that starts April 1. The governor has threatened to not sign the budget, currently subject to negotiations with Senate and Assembly leaders, if it doesn’t include his proposals.