“I have seen a whole string of politicians, one coming after another saying, ‘I’m different, trust me. I’m not like the other guy,’” New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo told a mostly student audience at New York University School of Law on February 2. “And I had my heart broken again and again and again.”
Those of us who care about honest government had their hearts broken by Cuomo himself, back in March 2014, when he disbanded the Moreland Commission. He had created it eight months earlier, with a broad mandate to investigate state government. It could probe anyone, he said at the time, even Cuomo himself. Then he killed it.
At NYU, Cuomo sought to woo us back. He laid out a plan with five points. Among them:
• Lawmakers “will have to disclose to the public all the outside income they receive, from who, for what and whether there is any connection to the state government or the office that they hold.”
• After Citizens United, the state cannot limit independent campaign expenditures but it can “require disclosure.… We are proposing the strongest campaign finance disclosure rules in the nation by increasing the frequency and the detail of campaign and independent filing expenditures.”
• “Per diems have become backdoor salary supplements. Legislators travel to Albany because they make money on the per diems, believe it or not. We must ensure that per diems are only for actual and necessary costs or paid as a fixed amount.”
Cuomo acknowledged that he needs the legislature’s cooperation to do these things. Pressure from its leaders may explain why he dissolved the Moreland Commission. The criminal complaint against former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver alleges sleazy details that Silver would not have wanted the commission to uncover. How will the governor persuade lawmakers to agree this time?
“I will not sign a budget,” he pledged, “that does not have an ethics plan as outlined in my proposal that addresses the current problems in the system.” He called this his “leverage.” The State has passed four budgets in a row and on time, he reminded the audience, which hasn’t happened since Nelson Rockefeller. But Cuomo said that his pledge “means in all probability that we will not have a fifth on-time amicable budget.”
This is “go ahead, make my day,” kind of talk.
In tone and word, Cuomo told us that he is done with compromise on ethics legislation. Here was a new (or renewed) Cuomo. Should we trust him with our hearts once more? Cautiously. Cuomo repeatedly invoked the memory of his father, Mario Cuomo, who died January 1. “My father’s driving philosophy was as simple as it was powerful,” Cuomo said. “We should do good things while we are on Earth…. Why? Because it’s the right thing to do, and because it’s the smart thing to do.” It seemed that Andrew was offering Mario’s moral authority as a marker for his promises and that Andrew meant it that way. It may be the best security we could want.
Cuomo’s speech has some holes, the kind a clever lawyer could later exploit. “I will not sign a budget that does not have an ethics plan as outlined in my proposal that addresses the current problems in the system,” Cuomo said. “Outlined” is a malleable term. It permits a weaker plan that also “addresses the current problems.” Further, all we have now are talking points, not the legislative language.
Cuomo omitted two solutions that would greatly reduce the ability of lawmakers to sell influence. First, cap outside income. Now there is no cap. Members of Congress are limited to 15 percent of their salaries. Second, forbid lawmakers to take official action (other than a vote) on any matter that will benefit a significant client or customer of a professional service firm or other business in which the lawmaker or a relative in the lawmaker’s household has an interest. These steps would eliminate the quid from quid pro quo.
Cuomo said, in describing his five points, “Our campaign finance laws are outdated and porous. Housekeeping accounts and LLC loopholes are glaring. Public finance is the only option to ensure democratic access to the system.” All true. But was he committing to these changes, including campaign finance, as part of his “no budget” pledge? The speech is vague.
Finally, Cuomo was addressing legislative ethics only. The Moreland Commission’s mandate included the Executive Branch and investigation of “public corruption, conflicts of interest, and conflicts in State Government, including but not limited to [state] criminal laws relating to abuses of the public trust.” That need is still out there, unmet.
Andrew Cuomo misjudged the political damage from disbanding the Moreland Commission. Nor did he anticipate that the United States Attorney would continue the commission’s work, which led to the arrest of Silver and possibly of others to come. Cuomo is now trying to atone for his mistake. His history as New York attorney general and as the governor who had the courage to create the Moreland Commission in the first place entitles him to a second chance. We should be skeptical, but also hopeful. Cuomo must know that he can’t go breaking our hearts once again.