An ethics agenda for Kathy Hochul
Soon-to-be-Gov. Kathy Hochul has promised no one will ever describe her administration as toxic. That welcome departure from what New Yorkers have endured for 11 years is not enough. The Albany swamp stinks far beyond the executive office she will soon control.
Some years back, a friend who is an executive recruiter told me this story. A Midwestern state had hired his firm to find a budget director. The search committee rejected out of hand a highly qualified New York State candidate he proposed. Albany is so systemically corrupt, they told him, officials who succeeded at a high level had likely compromised themselves along the way.
Such is our state government’s national reputation. New Yorkers will not be surprised. Some years back, Quinnipiac polls show nearly nine out of every 10 of us view our state government as corrupt.
Andrew Cuomo is perhaps the most highly evolved creature to emerge from the swamp, but many are covered with the same muck. Gov. David Paterson was too compromised to run for re-election. Gov. Eliot Spitzer proved an emperor with no clothes, save the socks he purportedly wore while patronizing pricey prostitutes. Attorney General Eric Schneiderman attacked women he dated and threatened to order state police to arrest them. Comptroller Alan Hevesi used his perch as New York’s top fiscal official to fill his pockets with taxpayer money. He graciously shared some of the loot with his political advisers, Hank Morris and Ray Harding. All three were convicted.
The denizens of the Legislature have no more anti-corruption antibodies than New York’s statewide officials. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver channeled state money to friends who channeled money to him through his law firm. Before him there was Speaker Mel Miller, who left in similar disgrace. Senate majority leaders have practically made criminality a feature of the job: Dean Skelos, John Sampson, Malcolm Smith, Joe Bruno all resigned under clouds. Backbench Assembly members and senators are no slouches when it comes to abusing their power. Since 2006, at least 30 Albany elected officials have left office accused of one rotten deed or another. Some now have experience with another government institution — the prison system.
Our current crop of senior elected officials — Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, and Attorney General Tish James — all appear to be honest public servants. It would be great to believe we have somehow cleared the miasma from Albany’s air. But the pattern of systemic corruption has been so deep for so long it seems more likely we are witnessing a brief pause for breath.
When she becomes the governor — the first woman to hold the job — COVID-related crises will absorb much of Hochul’s time. Still, if she wants to begin restoring New Yorkers’ confidence in their government, she must address the corruption that permeates it.
As a start, Hochul’s husband must resign as general counsel of Delaware North, a company with tens of millions of dollars of contracts with New York State entities. As long as he holds that role, the appearance of conflict is unavoidable. The unmistakable message would be our new governor is ready for business as usual, Albany style.
To signal change, Hochul should make reform of the state’s ethics commission a priority, along the lines proposed by state Sen. Liz Krueger. She should also pursue serious campaign finance reform that goes far beyond the public relations ploy undertaken in 2019. That exercise in spin over substance allows candidates for statewide office to accept whopping donations of $25,000 and puts no limits on party “housekeeping” accounts typically controlled by top elected officials. And political fundraising should be banned while the Legislature is in session, a practice many states follow.
A strong series of anti-corruption measures would send Albany’s political class a message that a higher standard of ethical behavior is the new norm. It would begin a long process of creating a culture of honest government far different from what goes on now in our state’s Capitol. Without such an initiative, a welcome change in tone in the governor’s office will be only that. And our state government will continue to serve New York’s politicians more than its people.
Originally posted as an op-ed with the NY Daily News on August 18th, 2021.