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In My Opinion: 06/13/2013 – Time to Declare War on Albany, by Arnold N. Kriss

With nearly weekly revelations of scandal emanating from Albany, Governor Andrew Cuomo must act immediately to drain the cesspool that is our State capital.

Governor Cuomo has threatened to empanel a Moreland Act Commission to investigate the Legislature if it does not act on ethics reform during this session. But why wait? No significant ethics reform has ever come out of the Legislature, and there is no reason to believe it will now.

The Governor should immediately empanel a commission to investigate Albany’s ethical failures to question our elected officials, including the Governor, the Assembly’s Speaker and the Senate’s Majority Leader – the “three men in the room,” – and others. What must be asked is why only halfway measures were enacted to combat corruption and official misconduct and what oversight reforms are mandated to change the way Albany does business.

Will the legislative leaders voluntarily appear, probably not.

Their argument against a Moreland Act Commission is the separation of powers. However, a commission can still “invite” legislative leaders and representatives to testify about real ethical reform.

A refusal by any legislator to voluntarily testify about cleaning up Albany would be akin to taking the 5th Amendment against self-incrimination. Politically damning to those elected officials who will then have to face media scrutiny and the ultimate judges – the voters – to explain their refusal to answer and also act.

This is not some farfetched approach for Governor Cuomo to take – precedent exists – in fact, in 1987 former Governor Mario Cuomo, by executive order, empanelled the Commission on Government Integrity and testified before this commission. The commission concluded that “the laws, regulations and procedures of New York State fall woefully short in guarding against political abuses in an alarming number of areas . . . (and) . . . thoroughly exposed these weaknesses repeatedly in our hearings and reports.”

It has been reported that a corruption-probing commission is the equivalent of declaring war on the Legislature, and would mean dooming any chance of accomplishing anything for the remainder of the legislative session. That seems unlikely since the Legislature is not likely to accomplish much while it defends itself against weekly revelations of wrong doing and wired legislators.

The State needs tougher penal and ethical laws to punish a corrupt public official. For starters, eliminating a legislator’s outside income from special interest law firms, real estate companies or other entities by making the Legislature a full time job; implementing meaningful campaign finance reform; and overhauling the ineffective State Board of Elections when it comes to enforcing election law violations by candidates and political action committees.

Let’s also end the legislators’ piggy bank mentality of funding not-for-profit organizations with our tax dollars, particularly when the public official has a direct interest or has family and friends involved with the organization.

Ending “pay to play” should also be declared. It should be against the law for a corporation, its officer, lobbyist or an employee to contribute to a political campaign while seeking State business or after a State contract is awarded.

The State’s weak ethics reforms in 2010 were political theater when our elected officials proclaimed that the State government was doing something about this systemic problem. Recent disclosures of wrongdoing clearly demonstrate they failed. .

It is up to the Governor to restore public confidence in our elected officials, especially our Legislature.

The public must also express outrage by voting. As former Mayor Ed Koch said when he championed ethics reform across the State from 2010-2012, it is time to “Throw the Bums Out.”

In 2013, he would have said, “It is time to declare war.”

Arnold N. Kriss, was counsel to former Mayor Edward I. Koch’s New York Uprising concerning legislative ethics and redistricting, a former Brooklyn Assistant District Attorney and a NYPD Deputy Commissioner-Trials.

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