Here’s the latest disgrace out of Albany: Ex-Assemblyman Vito Lopez, who had to resign after it was revealed that he just couldn’t keep his hands off the pretty young things he liked to hire, has been fined $330,000 by the state Legislative Ethics Commission for his harassment of one young woman after another.
“Disgrace?” you ask. “What disgrace? Sounds like justice to me.”
Sure, until you learn that he won’t have to pay the money himself. He can just use his campaign funds to do that. Yes, people who believed in Lopez, or thought they could get something out of him by contributing to his campaign, will now see their money go to the state. Or maybe some of it will go to two of the young women, who have sued Lopez and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver for covering up his malfeasance by paying off the first two women who complained. Or maybe they’ll just get taxpayer money, like the first two did.
What a system.
But once again, as he did a couple years ago, Gov. Cuomo is trying to institute reform. His initial round of reforms were partly effective and partly ineffective, and we hope this round will prove stronger. It appears it will, if enacted.
First off, the governor would ban the use of campaign contributions for personal use, whether it’s to pay fines or, as in the case of officials such as (indicted) state Sen. Malcolm Smith of Jamaica, to lead a more lavish lifestyle than one’s actual income would allow.
To combat another problem, Cuomo’s reform package would also require disclosure of who is behind all campaign materials. In many races, such as the one last year between state Sen. Joe Addabbo Jr. of Howard Beach and City Councilman Eric Ulrich of Ozone Park, outside groups sent out mailings without saying who was funding them. Shedding sunlight on those organizations is another necessary reform.
The governor also wants to lower the limits on contributions to political parties, which some wealthy donors, including our own Mayor Bloomberg, use to skirt limits on funds going directly to candidates themselves.
Among the other most notable reforms is Cuomo’s proposal to force people convicted of defrauding the government to pay back three times the amount of money they stole, rather than just the actual amount. That means that when a Shirley Huntley steals $88,000 while the state senator from Jamaica, she’d have to pay back nearly $270,000. Sounds like a good deterrent to bad behavior. And people such as Huntley, and the long list of other Queens officials convicted of corruption, would be banned from ever serving in public office or doing business with the state. One more reason to keep your hands out of the cookie jar.
There is one naive element in the governor’s plan that should be nixed. He would create a public financing system for state elections like the one in the city, which gives candidates $6 for every eligible $1 they raise from contributors. But that just invites more corruption, as seen in the conviction of one employee of, and one contributor to, the John Liu mayoral campaign. The lure of matching funds may also have been an element in Smith’s alleged lawbreaking in his own aborted race for mayor.
There are several other reforms in the package Cuomo outlined this week. The plan is being hailed by groups such as Citizens Union and the Brennan Center for Justice — the latter of which years ago correctly labeled New York’s Legislature as the worst in the country. If most of these proposals become law, we should at least make 49th place, and who knows, maybe we’ll be ranked even better than that one day.