Elect Good People

It’s hard to believe it was less than two years ago when Gov. Andrew Cuomo sounded the trumpets over an ethics bill that would “end the dysfunction and corruption that has plagued Albany for far too long and bring integrity back to the halls of our Capitol.”

Those very words rang out in emails to every newsroom in the state.

Imagine our surprise when emails began pouring into the newsroom last week saying state Sen. Malcolm Smith, a Democrat who represents a Queens district in New York City, was among a group of six people charged in a bribery scheme aimed at getting him the Republican nomination for mayor. Then, a couple of days later, emails poured in that state Assemblyman Eric Stevenson was being charged with corruption by prosecutors, with fellow Assemblyman Nelson Castro granted immunity from prosecution for helping to build the case against Stevenson. Castro then resigned his position.

So much for the “true independent monitor to investigate corruption” promised by the Clean Up Albany Act of 2011.

Cuomo is already starting a public push for tougher ethics laws, saying he will take the public’s outrage over the latest ethical lapses in Albany to craft new ethics reform legislation. There is one recurring problem with ethics reform; the laws are always written by people who want to protect unethical behavior. Legislators know most of the ideas Cuomo is likely to propose and can easily find ways to circumvent it. Take, for example, the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, the jewel of Cuomo’s toothless and ineffective 2011 ethics reform legislation. It only takes two of six legislators on the commission to vote against an investigation to stop a probe dead in its tracks. It didn’t much work to take the teeth out of that particular piece of ethics reform.

Cuomo unveiled the first of his ethics reforms Tuesday. The Public Trust Act establishes a new class of public corruption crimes and expands the definitions of public corruption offenses. The law would also impose tougher jail sentences on individuals who misuse public funds and permanently bar those convicted of public corruption offenses from holding any elected or civil office, lobbying, contracting, receiving state funding, or doing business with the state, directly or through an organization.

It sounds wonderful on paper – but so have the last two attempts at ethics reform. We wonder why this time would be any different?

Karl Sleight, former state ethics board executive director, led the investigation into former state Comptroller Alan Hevesi and knows firsthand the difficulties in policing ethics in Albany.

“The larger issue is how to attract quality candidates with the right moral compass …” Sleight told the Associated Press.

Elect good people. That is a novel thought.