The time is ripe again, as it is every spring in Albany, for a New York state ethics overhaul. Every spring season, since at least the days of DeWitt Clinton, the state government has needed an ethical housecleaning.
No Hercules, though, ever comes forth to clean out the Augean stables in New York state government.
The most recent arrests of key legislators on corruption charges underscore once again the need for some kind of effective ethics reform in the interests of clean government.
The pattern is boringly repetitive: Some scandal involving legislators produces political rhetoric, then rumors of real reform surface, finally some cosmetic tinkering happens, but in the end no real reform takes place. Business as usual in the state Legislature continues forward screened behind a daunting degree of complexity.
Albany politics is a textbook example of what all privileged insiders know, but never talk about in public: that complicated legal procedures are a very reliable way to thwart the democratic process. Corruption can be hidden quite easily behind nominal legality.
Along came the predictable news conference in which the governor announced the usual cosmetic fixes: From now on corrupt legislators are apparently supposed to inform on each other. Fat chance. The governor’s proposal would make bribing a public official a specifically defined crime. Moreover, from now on scheming to corrupt the government process will also be a specific crime. Imagine that.
Then, too, there is that curious idea about holding public officials to a five-year statute of limitations once they leave elected office. After five years a corrupt politician can have a free legal pass? That is supposed to represent an improved ethical standard? Let’s give the governor credit, though, for suggesting that New York state district attorneys could be given more authority. Let’s hope that he means the Albany and Manhattan offices, too.
Any short-term strategy that does not include doubling the investigative staff for Albany District Attorney David Soares and Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance simply isn’t a serious anti-corruption plan. As it is, Albany and New York City are the two most important district attorney jurisdictions for countering corruption.
At the same time, the governor should reconstitute the Moreland Commission.
And I have a humble proposal to jolt the insiders into real action: Appoint Eliot Spitzer to be the head of this empowered commission. Such a move would be a signal that real reform must happen.
The middle-term strategy for real reform involves relentlessly pursuing conventional legislative action to enact much more stringent ethics laws. With increased staffing in the Albany and Manhattan district attorney offices, and with Eliot Spitzer, a man who has already amply demonstrated a genuine interest in fighting corruption, back on the scene as the head of a new Moreland Commission, the public would have serious public servants on the front line. Such a line-up is guaranteed to spook the legislative insiders into quick action on substantive ethics reform.
The key to the effectiveness of a new Moreland Commission will be keeping the appointment of the rest of the commission members out of the hands of the governor and the legislative leaders. An effective ethics commission should be composed of county DAs, not appointed by the same officials who are potential targets of investigations.
The weakness in the legislative insiders’ position is that New York state legislators cannot directly control citizen-elected New York state district attorneys beyond the sordid tactic of threatening to cut their budgets, an action that has other negative consequences.
Beyond these ideas, the governor does have one good suggestion that New York state legislators become full-time public officials instead of part-time ones. It is also probably time once again to resurrect the specter of term limits, a prospect that also has value as a bargaining threat to force legislators into action.
No anti-corruption program is likely to be effective in the long term without real campaign finance reform. This reform has already been made unnecessarily complicated.
Still, the way forward is straightforward: No public official can take money from any private or organizational interest. Public officials can take ONLY public money as salary and for campaigning.
In the age of Citizens United, though, such a straightforward law could be seen by opponents as an infringement of free speech. In no way, though, would a law against private and corporate money in political campaigns be any kind of infringement of free speech. Organizations, corporate operatives and wealthy individuals can still speak all they want: They just shouldn’t give any money or gifts to public officials. None. This is a fundamental principle of good government. Money shouldn’t be confused with free speech.
As it is, legal challenges will be a major problem for any new piece of effective legislation. For the first time, though, ever since Spitzer was entrapped in his embarrassing scandal, the outline of the way forward toward New York state ethics reform is discernible — a way that will lead to cleaner government.
Chance within reach
A major historical reputation next to FDR, DeWitt Clinton, Nelson Rockefeller and Teddy Roosevelt is within reach of any governor or Moreland Commission head who might seize the initiative in a big way. Just as Teddy himself did in the late 19th century, a formidable anti-corruption initiative would be a good way for our ambitious governor to propel himself toward the big prize on the national political stage.
Whatever the outcome of this current attempt to sweep the Augean stable of Albany politics clean, political insiders have seldom been as vulnerable as they are now.
Now is the time for real ethics reform, once again, as it is every spring in Albany.
L.D. Davidson lives in Amsterdam and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.