Editorial: Pass ethics reform — no strings attached

How long are rank-and-file lawmakers going to keep allowing reputations to be stained?
State Capitol Building in Albany.
State Capitol Building in Albany.

For the time being, our state embarrassment is being overshadowed by our national embarrassment.

But it won’t always be that way.

Corruption in New York state government didn’t end with the convictions of top political leaders Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos. And the prosecutions won’t end with the firing of U.S. Attorney Prett Bharara.

In case you haven’t noticed — and who could blame you if you didn’t — two more state legislators found themselves in front of a judge last week on government corruption charges, joining a long list of infamy.

In New York’s own version of draining the swamp through the legal system, a current state senator and his predecessor in office were arraigned on felony charges in separate but similar cases of using their elected offices for personal gain.

State Sen. Robert Ortt is accused of padding his salary as then-mayor of  North Tonawanda by creating a no-show job for his wife with the Niagara County Republican Committee, resulting in the couple receiving more than $20,000.

Former Sen. George Maziarz, Ortt’s predecessor, is accused of hiding $95,000 in campaign payments made to a former staffer. The staffer continued to be paid secretly through campaign funds, even after leaving his government job six years ago under the cloud of a sexual harassment accusation, according to the attorney general’s office.

This kind of nonsense continues in Albany — legislators using the power of their office to help themselves and friends get jobs, money and political favors.
And it’s not just legislators getting in on the corruption. Let’s not forget the indictments handed up late last year against eight individuals connected to a bid-rigging scam involving the Buffalo Billion economic development program. Among the indicted were a close friend of the Cuomo family and the former head of SUNY Polytechnic Institute.

Yet despite the large number of wanted-posters featuring state government officials, lawmakers and the governor still won’t agree on a comprehensive set of ethics reforms.

How long are rank-and-file lawmakers going to keep allowing their reputations to be stained by the political corruption of others?

We’re talking about the majority of state legislators who aren’t on the take, who aren’t funneling campaign money to their friends and spouses, the ones who aren’t selling votes to the highest bidder or hiring family members to do jobs they don’t need to show up for, the legislators who ran for office just because they wanted to do a good job for the people.

There are a lot of them out there. But because of the steady parade of indictments, the public perceives that the whole lot of them is corrupt.

The only way for them to regain their reputation is by passing strong ethics reform measures. We’ve talked about them before: campaign finance reform measures like closing the LLC loophole to reduce the influence of big money in elections, greater transparency, more accountability and disclosure requirements of outside income, greater government oversight over the awarding of state contracts, etc.

One major impediment to ethics reform is the way things get done in Albany. It’s not done by a loud display of democracy on the legislative floor, but by give-and-take negotiations behind closed doors with a handful of legislative leaders, buying and selling legislation and money. If the governor or a legislative leader really wants ethics reform, he has to have something of value to trade. Last year, it was a pay raise for legislators. This year, it might be something else.

Think of it like competitive ballroom dancing, only with knives. They whirl and they twirl and they tango until everyone gets close to what they want. Then they all go home for the summer.

But ethics reform shouldn’t be part of the dance. Because it’s so important to the reputation of our entire state government, it should stand on its own merit. No trading it for pay raises or money for their districts or support for a particular position. It shouldn’t be tied to the budget or anything else.

Now, as the April 1 budget deadline looms, it’s more likely than ever that they won’t get to ethics reform before then, and perhaps not before the end of the legislative session in June.  So most likely, we’re talking about another year, another opportunity wasted.

The people might be distracted now by the shenanigans going on in Washington.

But at some point, they’re going to redirect their attention back to the corrupt political system in Albany, and to the government officials who continue to refuse to do anything to fix it.

Don’t say you weren’t warned.

Categories: Editorial, Opinion

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