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Queens Chronicle

Don’t let state ethics reform slip away

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Posted: Thursday, May 12, 2011 12:00 pm | Updated: 2:18 pm, Mon May 16, 2011.

   Gov. Cuomo was elected to lead New York State primarily on a platform of serious, wide-ranging reform and dove right into his first order of business, getting a responsible budget passed on time. He succeeded.

   But now the governor and state lawmakers must revive the drive to fix more of what’s broken in Albany — just about everything — because it looks like the rest of the reforms they promised may fall by the wayside. The state simply cannot sustain business as usual, not financially and not morally — and not if any citizen is ever to believe another word that comes out of a politician’s mouth.

   The system needs to be revamped in a number of ways to lessen the impact of special interests and lawmakers’ ability to hand out jobs or even line their own pockets while feigning an allegiance to public service. Too many officials have been charged with financial wrongdoing.

   The list is long, familiar and bipartisan: the late Democratic Assemblyman Anthony Seminerio of Queens, convicted of taking bribes; Democratic ex-Assemblyman Brian McLaughlin of Queens, convicted of racketeering; the late Republican state Sen. Guy Velella of the Bronx, convicted of taking bribes; ex-Senate Republican Leader Joe Bruno of Rensselaer, convicted of fraud; Democratic ex-Sen. Pedro Espada of the Bronx, accused of embezzlement and theft; Sen. Carl Kruger of Brooklyn, accused of taking bribes; and, most recently in the news, Democratic ex-Comptroller Alan Hevesi of Queens, convicted of fraud.

   Others are under investigation, including Democratic senators Shirley Huntley and Malcolm Smith, both of Queens. This week it was reported that the feds subpoenaed Huntley about one or more nonprofits linked to her family. She steered taxpayer money to at least one charity through Albany’s secretive, anti-democratic “member item” system, the grants doled out without the usual American niceties like public disclosure or, you know, voting.

   The disturbingly common practice of legislators’ setting up so-called nonprofits to enrich friends and loved ones is at the root of many of the scandals, such as the federal indictment against Espada. It’s a practice that needs to be shut down entirely, by barring such obvious conflicts of interest as doling out taxpayer money to groups that pay your own children’s salaries; and ensuring that grant-receiving organizations have a track record of actually doing something for the community before getting funds.

   Another conflict-of-interest problem that needs to be tackled immediately is lawmakers’ dual loyalty to the Legislature and their other jobs. They must either be barred from outside employment or at least be forced to disclose income they get from it. We’ve had enough of Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver blocking medical malpractice reform while his law firm rakes in money from health-related lawsuits; and of Republican Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos stopping other measures even as his law firm represents clients doing business with the state.

   Lastly, and perhaps most fundamentally, legislators must no longer be allowed to draw their own district lines after each Census, helping each other stay in office. Of the state’s 212 lawmakers, 138 promised to establish the independent redistricting commission advocated by former Mayor Ed Koch’s New York Uprising group, but so far they haven’t acted. They must be held to those promises.

   Cuomo can’t allow the usual suspects to kill the need for reform. He recently announced a push to get gay marriage passed, a worthy goal we fully support, but he must put at least as much emphasis on ethics reform. Losing the momentum now could mean losing the war.

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