When it comes to anti-corruption, should we be cutting corners?
To anyone who wants to ensure the integrity of our state government, the answer should be no, we should not cut corners. What possible reason could we have for not ensuring that our public officials are free from corrupting influences?
In the wake of the FBI’s recent investigation of a corruption ring that included former Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith, corruption is at the top of the state agenda once again. This isn’t the first time in recent years that Albany has been racked by corruption like this.
One recalls former Comptroller Alan Hevesi’s 20-month sentence for a “pay-to-play” scheme involving the state pension fund — not to mention his misappropriation of state resources for the care of his wife back in 2006. Then there was the Tom Golisano–fueled state Senate coup of 2009, wherein embattled Democratic senators Pedro Espada Jr. and Hiram Monserrate threw the Senate into a month of political chaos. Espada actually was rewarded at the end for his shenanigans by being granted the position of majority leader. The wild ride ended with his 2010 expulsion from the Senate after an arrest on — you guessed it — corruption charges.
One can only imagine what sorts of things we don’t know about go on outside of the public eye. With a new focus on political integrity, two high-profile officials — Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Attorney General Eric Schneiderman — have, at the writing of this column, come out with proposals of their own to combat corruption. Both have gotten a mixed reception from Albany, though if you remove politicians’ own perceived potential self-interest from the equation, these measures are really no-brainers.
First is Speaker Silver’s proposal, which is essentially campaign finance reform on a broad level. He wants to start up a five-member board that would oversee elections, made up of representatives from the governor and the four legislative conferences. This board would also set up and manage a public financing system for elections, wherein donations under $250 would be met six-to-one with public funds.
This would have the effect of amplifying the voice of small donors who are all too often drowned out by the weight of the big political financiers who generally get more than their money’s worth through their contributions. It’s something we should have done years ago.
Silver also wants to attack some of the loopholes in the current Board of Elections regulations that allow, for instance, secret outside spending on attack ads unless certain very narrow criteria are met. This set of proposals should be passed without unnecessary delay. Dark money, by virtue of being hidden from the voting public’s eye, has the dual effect of warping voters’ perceptions and lawmakers’ priorities.
Here’s where things get tricky. Silver wants to give the attorney general more power to prosecute criminal violations of public financing. OK — good. That being said, he does not support giving the attorney general’s office something that Schneiderman has explicitly asked for — jurisdiction on election law corruption cases. His explanation is that he’s worried that Schneiderman’s office might be overwhelmed with “technical things” like filing deadlines.
One would assume Schneiderman would know what he can handle. But to assuage Silver’s concerns, here’s an easy fix: If the office isn’t big enough, make it larger. If the office doesn’t have enough funds, give it more. If there are loopholes in the legislation that create too many “technical things” to worry about, close them.
In order for our government to function properly, we need to make sure we get this right, or else the stuff that comes out of Albany’s “sausage machine” is going to be spoiled. Any insistence to the contrary is a tacit endorsement of the status quo.
Surprisingly, Gov. Cuomo also opposes Schneiderman’s request — surprising, that is, because he actually supported giving the attorney general said powers when he first ran for governor in 2010. When pressed for an explanation of his about-face, he told reporters that he thinks he’ll be able to find someone who’s independent just fine on his own for this election watchdog role. In classic Cuomo fashion, he even asked lawmakers not to confirm someone they don’t think is an independent enough selection.
How generous. Conventional wisdom is that Schneiderman isn’t a Cuomo ally — thus the governor’s insistence that he choose the watchdog. But that’s the point of putting the attorney general on the case. It’s almost better that Schneiderman isn’t considered to be a Cuomo ally. And best to have a public official who was confirmed (elected) by the people, not the lawmakers he’ll be keeping a close eye on.
For New York state, getting this right is especially important, given the embarrassing recent history of corruption and scandal in Albany. And getting it right means not using lame excuses to cover for wanton inaction. Schneiderman should have all the power he’s requesting to prosecute violators of the law — period.
None of this should preclude other action like public financing of elections, regulating the influence of SuperPACs — and down the road, redistricting reform and further campaign finance reform.
But these things — not to mention other important legislative action — can’t happen unless our elections are pure as can be. Let’s write tough new legislation and hire the attorney general to enforce it.
Steve Keller lives in Averill Park and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.