The arrest and subsequent resignation of Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin sent shockwaves across New York’s political landscape. The charges against Benjamin stem from an alleged misuse of his public office to financially benefit a big campaign contributor. Of course, Benjamin deserves to have his side heard, but his immediate resignation underscores the legal threat he faces and the indictment is fresh evidence that the state fails when it comes to ethics oversight.
According to the federal indictment, Benjamin used his role as then-state senator to obtain a grant for an individual who donated to his Senate campaign and became a significant donor to Benjamin’s failed bid for New York City comptroller. In other words, he secured taxpayer money in direct exchange for someone funneling him campaign cash, including the ability to get public matching funds.
The courts will sort this all out, but misuse of public office for personal (or political) gain is a story that has been told too often in state government. The former Senate majority leader went to prison for misuse of his office; the now deceased former Assembly Speaker did too; and as we know, Gov. Hochul’s predecessor is challenging claims that he misused his public office as well.
And it’s not just elected officials. Top aides to the former governor also were convicted of corruption, along with the campaign contributors who conspired with them.
The larger question is why does this keep happening? The answer is that the state simply does not take ethics enforcement seriously. It’s common knowledge: People behave differently when they know that rules are enforced. Drivers follow speed limits when they see patrol cars. When there are no patrol cars for miles on end, they’ll go as fast as they damn well please.
Albany is a highway with no patrol cars.
It should be lost on no one that many of the state’s major corruption prosecutions — including the Benjamin resignation — were the result of federal investigations, not state ones. If the feds are not watching, or there is no federal legal violation, enforcement is left to state ethics watchdogs.
In Albany, the state has never established an independent ethics watchdog. The most recent iterations — the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, which monitors the executive branch, and the Legislative Ethics Commission, which monitors the Legislature — are controlled by individuals who are directly appointed by the governor and the legislative leaders. Ditto the state inspector general, who reports to the governor’s office.
Having ethics watchdogs hand picked by the individuals that they are supposed to regulate is an obvious problem and at the heart of why scandals occur.
Governor Hochul understood this and advanced a plan in January that she said would ensure that state officials were not directly choosing their own watchdogs. Yet the final agreement she negotiated in the state budget earlier this month fell far short of that.
Under that new law, cobbled together in secret negotiations between the governor and the legislative leaders, the new agency won’t be independent. Its commission will have an 11-member board: three members appointed by the governor, two by the Senate majority leader, two by the Assembly speaker, one by the Assembly minority leader, one by the Senate minority leader, one by the attorney general and one by the comptroller.
Why should the governor and the leaders of the legislative majorities be entitled to more than one appointment? There is no reason, but it does smack of a classic deal to allow the three leaders to dominate the new agency. Quick math shows that those seven appointees would dominate the new ethics agency.
There is an added wrinkle: The Deans of New York law schools would vet those applicants to determine qualifications, using criteria ranging from their professional backgrounds to their geographic diversity. It’s worth noting that law schools are involved in lobbying the state government, and in any event, the Deans’ role won’t make the ethics agency independent.
Of course, that’s not to say that the plan does not offer improvements over the awful ethics system now in place. But the cornerstone of effective ethics oversight is independence, and on that basis alone, this proposal fails, and fails miserably.
New York has had too many ethical scandals, resulting in a crisis in public confidence in state government. History shows that whatever ethics agency is put in place will be around for years. Scandals can drive real reforms, but unfortunately New York’s leaders have so far squandered this reform opportunity.
Of course, the vast majority of elected officials are honest, professional and reasonable. But having a weak state ethics law enforced by individuals who are directly tied to the political establishment creates a culture where individuals can game the system to benefit themselves. That appears to be what led to Lt. Governor Benjamin’s arrest.
This latest scandal underscores the need for independent ethics oversight. The governor and the leaders still have time this session. They must go back to the drawing board and fix their latest deal.