Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Tuesday proposed giving prosecutors more power to combat public corruption and would, for the first time, require public officials to report corrupt actions by their colleagues.
The Public Trust Act would create new crimes and increase penalties for violating existing anti-corruption laws. The proposal would make specific crimes of bribing a public official, scheming to corrupt the government and failing to report public corruption.
Among the tools would be a way for witnesses to receive only partial immunity when testifying before a grand jury, as in federal cases, so a witness isn’t free from being prosecuted by a local district attorney.
The proposal would also hold former elected officials to a five-year statute of limitation for their acts once they leave an elected body. Former elected officials have been involved in some of Albany’s most notorious cases.
No bill with specifics, however, was released by Cuomo.
“The public expects elected officials to conduct their business ethically, honestly, and it’s time our laws caught up with reality,” said Cyrus Vance, Manhattan district attorney and head of the District Attorneys Association of the State of New York.
“These are very sound proposals, and they have support from district attorneys across our state,” Vance said at a Manhattan news conference.
Queens District Attorney Richard A. Brown said the proposal included “important new tools … and make it possible for prosecutors to more effectively investigate and prosecute public corruption.”
Specifically, the proposal would lower the burden for prosecutors in proving bribery of a public official, a felony. Prosecutors would no longer have to prove a corrupt agreement was made, but simply show the bribe was “intended” to influence the official.
Public officials and public employees for the first time would face a misdemeanor if they fail to report suspected corruption by a colleague. Former state ethics commission Executive Director Karl Sleight told The Associated Press on Monday that this was a key element missing from the many attempts at ethics reform from Albany.
“Ethics has always been a hard lift in the Legislature,” said Barbara Bartoletti of the League of Women Voters, “but maybe there is now a tipping point, and perhaps we have not come to the point that legislators would rather turn on their own than be tainted themselves by the whole institution being corrupt.”
Cuomo said the proposal would focus far more attention on ethical behavior.
“When it comes to public integrity, you can’t have enough cops on the beat,” Cuomo said. “If you are a public official and you break the law, you will be caught, you will be prosecuted and you will go to jail.”
U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said last week that government corruption is rampant in Albany. State politicians were arrested last week in two bribery cases brought by Bharara.
Cuomo also raised the possibility of making the Legislature full-time. Currently lawmakers who are paid a base of $79,500 a year are considered part-time, although most make more than $100,000 through leadership stipends and per-diem payments for being in Albany.
Cuomo said that with a part-time Legislature including many lawyers and business operators, “the number of potential conflicts goes way up.” But he said the drawbacks include higher pay, and he half-joked that a Legislature in session more may be seen as doing “more harm.”
Cuomo wants the Legislature to approve the measures this session, which ends June 20.
Spokesmen for the Assembly’s Democratic majority and the traditional Democratic conference in the Senate said they are reviewing the proposal and declined extensive comment.
“In light of the charges brought last week by the U.S. attorney against members of the Legislature, we must redouble our efforts to create a government New Yorkers can be proud of,” said Senate Republican leader Dean Skelos.
Sen. Jeff Klein of the Independent Democratic Conference, which runs the Senate with the Republican conference, called Cuomo’s proposal a good first step.
Absent from the announcement was Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, although Cuomo noted he had conducted big corruption cases back when he was attorney general. Cuomo said he will propose further reforms that could include added powers for the attorney general in campaign law and in regulating charities, but district attorneys are “the primary criminal law enforcement agents in this state.”
Schneiderman, a former state senator, issued a brief statement noting Cuomo’s proposal is “building on legislation I proposed as a lawmaker” and a “step forward.”