After his bombshell resignation announcement, Governor Cuomo will soon leave office and Lt. Governor Hochul will take over. And while the investigations are not over – most notably whether the Administration illegally withheld data on COVID deaths in nursing homes, whether Governor Cuomo used public resources in drafting his $5.1 million book, and whether the Administration compromised safety in the building of the Mario Cuomo bridge – one thing is certain: Incoming Governor Hochul will need to take actions to restore public trust in state government.
The Attorney General’s seismic report substantiating the harassment charges leveled against Governor Cuomo painted a picture of an out-of-control executive staff that created a “toxic” work environment and were willing to use confidential personnel records – including of former staff – to smear the governor’s critics.
In addition, related issues continue to fester. In addition to the ongoing investigation into misuse of public resources to draft the governor’s book, there is also the issue of how the state’s ethics watchdog (the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, JCOPE) blessed the book deal it in the first place. Apparently, the proposal never went to the ethics agency’s full Commission for discussion. Why?
Moreover, there is still the issue of how Governor Cuomo found out about the ethics watchdog’s confidential discussions on its investigation of Joe Percoco, Governor Cuomo’s now imprisoned former right-hand aide. The state Inspector General’s review of the JCOPE leak didn’t find anything, but she never interviewed the Governor or the Assembly Speaker – a scandal on its own. Who illegally leaked information to the governor?
And while we’re at it, there is still the Administration’s habit of endlessly dragging out Freedom of Information Law requests – effectively denying the public timely access to public records.
Unfortunately, the Assembly Judiciary Committee has so far refused to release the findings of its investigation. New Yorkers paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for their work and the public deserves, at a minimum, a report on what the Committee found – if anything. There are other investigations that are ongoing: the state Attorney General (investigating the governor’s book deal) and the federal Department of Justice (investigating the reporting of nursing home deaths). Those investigations must continue with findings publicly reported. It’s hard to fix problems unless you know that they exist.
Soon-to-be-Governor Hochul will have her hands full pulling together her leadership team, managing a sprawling state government bureaucracy, developing a state budget for January, and handling the ongoing pandemic. But restoring public trust should be near the top of her list. Here are some steps:
- Release documents that could shed light on any improper actions of the executive staff. Demand that staff who remain commit to the highest levels of professionalism and public service.
- Issue an executive order restricting the governor, lieutenant governor, agency heads and policymaking executive branch staff from making outside income without the written consent of the ethics oversight agency’s (JCOPE or its replacement) commissioners.
- Flatly ban the use of government resources on personal matters, including using government lawyers for personal legal matters.
- Replace the state ethics watchdogs (JCOPE and the Legislative Ethics Commission), both of which are dysfunctional, opaque and ultimately unaccountable to the people.
- Create a genuinely independent state Inspector General — one that does not report to the governor’s office – staffed by civil servants (with the IG having a term of office and termination only for just cause).
- Require that all agencies strictly comply with the time limits set in the Freedom of Information Law. It’s hard for government to be held accountable to the public it serves when it operates in secret.
- Prohibit those seeking government contracts from making campaign contributions to relevant elected officials or their related political parties.
- Restrict lobbyists from making campaign contributions. Albany allows lobbyists to make campaign contributions to the governor and state lawmakers, even while the Legislature is in session.
This long list just touches the top layer of the changes that are needed. In addition, the new governor must set a new tone – in the way she personally operates and in the manner in which her staff behave.
Winston Churchill reportedly quipped, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” New York State is once again in crisis. Ms. Hochul must rise to the moment.