ALBANY, N.Y. — The conviction of a former top aide to Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo spurred fresh demands to address Albany’s culture of backroom dealing Wednesday — calls that New York state lawmakers have shrugged off in the past.
Suggestions include tightening the state’s notoriously loose campaign finance limits, creating a new independent ethics watchdog agency or improving the oversight of state contracts. None of the ideas is new, and all have been pushed, unsuccessfully, after earlier scandals.
A jury in Manhattan convicted Joseph Percoco on federal bribery and fraud charges Tuesday. Prosecutors say Percoco and his family accepted more than $300,000 in bribes from companies hoping to win lucrative state contracts. Cuomo was not accused of any wrongdoing, but the trial highlighted Albany’s pay-to-play culture, in which deep-pocketed business executives vie for the attention of government insiders who oversee billions of dollars in state funding.
Even before the verdict was announced, good-government groups and some lawmakers were urging reforms to address corruption and restore public confidence. But if dozens of past scandals are any guide, they may be disappointed. More than 30 lawmakers have left office since 2000 facing allegations of criminal or ethical misconduct; yet only modest changes to ethics and campaign finance laws have been made.
“People will make bad and wrong decisions,” Cuomo told reporters Wednesday, calling Percoco’s actions an “aberration.” ”Our job in government is to have the systems in place to catch those bad acts.”
There’s little indication any meaningful ethics changes will be approved this year. On Wednesday both the Democrat-led Assembly and the GOP-controlled Senate took up rival state budget bills that contained only modest proposals when it comes to ethics or corruption.
“We are doing nothing,” said Sen. Todd Kaminsky, a Long Island Democrat and former prosecutor. Kaminsky was elected to replace former Republican Senate Leader Dean Skelos, who is scheduled to be retried on corruption charges this year after a conviction was thrown out.
Top lawmakers insist they have taken Albany’s corruption problem seriously, and point to a state constitutional amendment recently passed by the voters that will allow a judge to strip the pensions of public officials convicted of corruption.
“If we can make additional changes to our laws that will positively impact our state and its people, we are always willing to have those discussions,” said Senate Leader John Flanagan, a Republican from Long island.
Several reforms have been repeatedly proposed, including the creation of a new, independent watchdog agency and the closure of a loophole allowing wealthy donors to make nearly unlimited — and secretive — political contributions by funneling the money through limited liability companies.
Cuomo said Wednesday that he would repeat his call for a ban on lawmakers taking side jobs, a situation that he said creates conflicts of interest for lawmakers. The proposal has never received a full vote in the Legislature, however, and wouldn’t impact executive branch staffers like Percoco. Nonetheless, Cuomo vowed to campaign on the proposal before the fall election — an admission that it’s unlikely to pass before lawmakers adjourn in June.
Some government watchdogs remain optimistic that at least some small reforms could pass. John Kaehny, executive director of the group Reinvent Albany, noted that both the Senate and Assembly budget proposals do contain a proposal to create a database of all state contracts to make it easier for the public to see how their money is being spent. He said he hopes more ambitious reforms are considered after the April 1 budget deadline.
“If they’re not, and nothing happens, we have to wonder if our democracy is working,” he said.