Another week, another scandal. Once again, it was U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara who brought the charges. What’s different is that the focus of the investigation was the governor’s office, not the legislature. According to the U.S. Attorney, “It turns out the state Legislature does not have any kind of monopoly on crass corruption in New York.”
Among the nine individuals charged were a former top aide and close confidante to Governor Cuomo, as well as the head of the State University of New York’s efforts to expand technologies. Eight of the nine have said that they are not guilty; the ninth has admitted guilt and is cooperating in the ongoing investigation.
Bharara’s described his investigation as shining “a light on yet another sordid side of the show-me-the-money culture that has so plagued government in Albany.” According to the U.S. Attorney, a former top aide to the governor accepted more than $315,000 in bribes and other perks, including a Hamptons fishing trip, in exchange for using his official position to perform valuable favors for an energy company, and $35,000 more in bribes from a Syracuse-based developer.
Also among those charged was the former president of the State University of New York Polytechnic Institute, who has been suspended without pay. According to the allegations in the complaint, the now-former head of the Institute and a lobbyist with close ties to the governor conspired with executives at two companies to rig the bidding process for a massive state-financed redevelopment project known as the Buffalo Billion.
In addition, the governor’s former aide and the lobbyist allegedly shook down companies seeking government contracts for large campaign contributions to the governor as part of their scheme to get contracts for the contributors.
Governor Cuomo has stated that he was unaware of these activities.
Yet, the charges brought by the U.S. Attorney are devastating political blows for the governor. It was Governor Cuomo who ran for office in 2010 vowing to clean up Albany and now, according to the allegations, appears to have surrounded himself with allies who were exploiting his Administration for their own personal gain.
Of course, these are only allegations, but even if half of them turn out to be true, actions must be taken by the governor in order to begin to restore the public’s trust.
The U.S. Attorney’s complaint should offer a roadmap to the governor and the legislature on how to proceed.
First, end the secrecy surrounding the state’s economic development plans. What is clear from the complaint is that the governor’s management style of surrounding himself with a handful of trusted aides, and then making decisions largely in secret, is flawed. Such an approach relies on the trustworthiness of those aides. Apparently in these cases, that trust was misplaced.
As U.S. Justice Brandeis once remarked, “If the broad light of day could be let in upon men’s actions, it would purify them as the sun disinfects.” While openness can make decisions harder to implement, it makes it far less likely that people get away with dishonesty.
Second, empower the state’s fiscal watchdog, the state Comptroller, to examine contracts more closely. Early in his term, the governor approved a law that removed state comptroller oversight of contracts through the state SUNY system. Removing such oversight made it less likely that contracts would get the independent scrutiny they deserve. It’s clear from the complaint that independent oversight may have deterred wrongdoing.
Third, advance campaign finance reforms. Through the U.S. Attorney’s complaint there are allegations that the schemers were using the state contracting process as a way to shake down bidders for government contracts in order to obtain huge campaign contributions for the governor’s reelection effort. New York’s campaign finance system should eliminate campaign contributions from those seeking – or receiving – government contracts, the campaign finance limits should be much lower, and a voluntary system of public financing should be established. Such a voluntary system would help electoral challengers mount serious efforts, thus helping to hold incumbent elected officials more publicly accountable.
As the governor said in his first inaugural, “You have nothing without trust. And we are not going to back it up until we clean up Albany and there’s real transparency and real disclosure and real accountability and real ethics and real ethics enforcement. That’s what the people have voted for. That’s what the people deserve.”
Sadly, what has become increasingly clear is that the governor has failed in his pledge to clean up state government and to ensure that it operates openly. But he still has time. The governor must fulfill his pledge.