Have New York’s Leaders Doomed Major Ethics Reform?

Have New York’s Leaders Doomed Major Ethics Reform?

In the wee hours of Saturday, June 18, the New York legislature and Governor Andrew Cuomo passed a reform deal that strengthens the ban on coordination between super PACs and campaigns, and strips pensions from public officials who are convicted of felonies related to their office.

But instead of cheering, government reform advocates are livid. They say that the deal—done behind closed doors and without public review—is a tone-deaf response to mounting public outrage over a string of major corruption scandals in New York, including the conviction of two of the state’s former top leaders on federal corruption charges. The deal lacks any substantive measures aimed at rooting out corruption, reformers say, and could even doom future efforts to pass more robust ethics reforms.

“It’s a deflection,” says Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York. “They’re setting rules for everybody else but themselves. This is something that the legislature and governor want to point to, to confuse voters and say, ‘We’ve done something.’”

She adds that Cuomo “is basically washing his hands of ethics reform.”

The two most pressing measures that reformers wanted passed were missing from the package, including limits on the amount of outside income that legislators may earn, and closure of the so-called LLC loophole, which allows donors to secretly skirt contribution limits by routing undisclosed donations through limited liability corporations.

To the state’s reform advocates, closing the LLC loophole has become a Sisyphean task. Cuomo, along with both the state’s centrist Independent Democrats and the Republicans, rely heavily on LLC contributions from the real estate industry in their campaign fundraising. The loophole has become an unsavory feature of New York power politics and many state politicians are averse to closing it.

Critics now say that Cuomo’s pledge for the past six months to push LLC reform in this year’s legislative session was just lip service, especially after he failed to push for an ethics deal in the recent budget negotiations.

Indeed, Cuomo essentially admitted as much in an interview with The New York Times after the reform deal passed. “There has to be a dose of reality in the assessment,” he said. “It is tantamount to political suicide for the Republican Party in this state because they believe it ends corporate money, and only union money would come into the system, which would help the Democrats.” He added that the only way to close the loophole now is for New Yorkers to vote for a state constitutional convention in the upcoming 2017 referendum.

Many saw that as an admission that he doesn’t intend to help Democrats win control of the Senate from Republicans, who have repeatedly blocked LLC reform efforts and worked closely with Cuomo on several issues. “For him to say it never had a chance shows that while he may support [LLC reform], he’s not willing to put political muscle behind that,” says Dick Dadey, executive director of the New York reform group Citizens Union.

Reform advocates say the key now is for the public to keep up the pressure on leaders to pass genuine anti-corruption measures. 

“This is the sixth incremental step that a governor and New York legislature has taken in the past 11 years to strengthen the ethics of our public officials,” says Dadey. “With each incremental step, it becomes less likely that the big picture items are going to be achieved, because the appetite for visiting ethics reform gets smaller and smaller with each successive smaller victory.”

Reform groups will now try to make the 2016 elections a referendum on corruption in Albany. “Voters do have remedies,” Lerner says. “The reason why they felt they had to do something was public pressure. We’re far from powerless.”