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Post date: March 16 2015

A.G. Schneiderman Proposes Comprehensive Reforms To Combat Pervasive Corruption In Albany

At Citizens Union’s Forum, A.G. Schneiderman Gives Sharp Critique Of Albany's Wayward Ethical Compass And Past "Incremental" Reform Deals

Supports Governor Cuomo's Use Of Budget Process To Enact Reforms, But Calls For More Aggressive Changes

NEW YORK – Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman tonight offered a sharp critique of Albany's long history of ethical lapses and past claims of reform, and made comprehensive proposals to fundamentally change New York State government by striking at the root causes of corruption.  

During remarks delivered at a forum hosted by the nonpartisan good government group Citizens Union, the Attorney General outlined what he believes is required to help “cure the disease” of public corruption, including a total ban on outside employment income for legislators, an end to per diems, rules reform to empower individual legislators, and a constitutional amendment to extend legislators’ terms from two to four years. The Attorney General also proposed a comprehensive overhaul of New York’s campaign finance system.  

The Attorney General’s proposed legislative changes go further than any package previously proposed by a statewide elected official or legislative leader.

“We have more vigorous cops on the beat, defending the public trust, than ever before – but prosecutors can only respond to the symptoms of a system that is very, very ill,” said Attorney General Schneiderman. “To cure the disease, we must break a pattern in which scandal is followed by outrage, which is followed by reforms that largely tinker at the margins, and a press conference declaring that the problem has been solved, which is ultimately followed by another scandal. It looks to the people of New York like one charade after another.”

Attorney General Schneidermancontinued, “The people of this great State demand comprehensive, fundamental reforms. They deserve nothing less.”

Attorney General Schneiderman praised Governor Andrew M. Cuomo for pushing ethics reform as part of the State budget process, but called for more dramatic changes, even if doing so delayed enactment of the budget.
“The Governor has proposed to enact some reforms through this year’s State budget,” said Attorney General Schneiderman. “We should support his leadership in using this perfectly constitutional mechanism.  In fact, I would urge the Governor to hold out for even bolder reforms, including the proposals I have outlined.  In doing so, he would have the support of both the Constitution and the people of the State of New York.  A late budget would be a small price to pay.”

“Citizens Union applauds Attorney General Schneiderman for his aggressive and full-throated proposals to end the corrosive culture of corruption in Albany that has put too many elected officials behind bars and taints the many good lawmakers who serve well the public interest,” said Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, which hosted tonight’s public forum on ethics. “Our ethics laws need to be further strengthened to reduce conflicts and bolster enforcement.  Our campaign finance laws need to be reformed to reduce the influence of money on our political system. And legislators’ compensation needs to be overhauled so we can attract the best to Albany.  Attorney General Schneiderman’s bold proposals adds his strong voice to a crescendoing effort to not only change our state’s laws, but to change how the people’s business is done in our state capitol.”

"The Attorney General has proposed a comprehensive set of reforms which, if adopted, would go far to reduce conflicts of interest and transform the ethical climate in Albany,” said Richard Briffault, a Columbia Law professor and panelist at tonight’s public forum.

"New Yorkers can no longer afford a state government that is being bought by billionaires and their campaign cash,” said Karen Scharff, executive director of Citizen Action of New York.“We applaud Attorney General Schneiderman's far-reaching proposals for campaign finance reforms, including public matching funds, that are what's needed to finally reduce pay to play politics and corruption in Albany. AG Schneiderman is providing the kind of statewide leadership New York State needs."

“Attorney General Schneiderman is right – for years in Albany there has been too much patting ourselves on the back for passing piecemeal reforms, while the problem of corruption only grows worse,” said Lawrence Norden, deputy director of the Brennan Center's Democracy Program. “The nexus of big money, lack of enforcement, and some unscrupulous elected officials has entrenched a political system constantly beset by scandal. The only answer is comprehensive campaign finance reform, starting with a statewide public financing system to elevate the voices of average voters, who are too often forgotten amidst the search for big money. If coupled with other changes to address the conflicts of interest that pervade Albany and corrupt public policy, a cleaner, more representative New York State government is attainable.”

"The scandals of the last few years have shown that incremental steps are not enough," said Daniel R. Alonso, a former federal prosecutor who recently served as Manhattan Chief Assistant District Attorney. "Attorney General Schneiderman's comprehensive set of reforms wisely focuses on preventing corruption before it happens, and puts New York State front and center in the fight against corruption in our midst."

Former United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York Benito Romano said, “Attorney General Schneiderman understands that New Yorkers not only need stronger enforcement  tools for fighting corruption, but also systemic reforms that make public service more transparent and ethical, allowing  honest, hard-working public servants to thrive.  I applaud his boldness and initiative here.”

In 2011, Attorney General Schneiderman and  State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli formed “Operation Integrity,” a first-of-its-kind joint task force using the State Comptroller’s power to refer cases involving the abuse of public funds to the Attorney General’s office to investigate and prosecute public corruption. This effort has led to more than sixty cases against state and local officials and their cronies, including the conviction of a sitting State Senator and indictments against members of the State Assembly and the New York City Council. But despite the efforts of the Attorney General’s Public Integrity Bureau and those of U.S. Attorneys across the State, the cycle of corruption persists, in part due to the negligible impact of marginal reforms previously enacted in the wake of public corruption scandals.

In order to end the ‘rinse-and-repeat’ cycle of scandal followed by public outrage, Attorney General Schneiderman proposed a sweeping package of reforms that would bring a meaningful transformation of the culture of Albany.  The Attorney General’s plan includes:

·         Ban Outside Employment Income For Lawmakers: Banning outside employment income for legislators – rather than simply introducing stricter disclosure requirements – would rescind a clear invitation for corruption. “In the 21st Century, it is impossible to avoid conflicts—or the appearance of conflicts—if legislators have outside employment,” said Attorney General Schneiderman.

·         Increase Salary For Legislators: In order to attract the best and brightest talent into public service, Attorney General Schneiderman proposed a significant salary increase for legislators. The Attorney General proposes a salary for State Legislators that is between what members of the New York City Council and members of Congress are paid, along with automatic cost of living increases going forward. 

·         End Per Diem Payments: Attorney General Schneiderman proposed ending per diem payments – which provide a daily allowance for legislators while in the Capitol – and replacing them with reimbursements for the actual costs of travel, with a cap on reimbursements.

·         Empower Individual Legislators:Attorney General Schneiderman also proposed reforms to the way the State Senate and Assembly operate that would empower rank-and-file lawmakers, as a means of attracting more talented people to legislative service.  He proposed making standing committees a more meaningful part of an open legislative process, and more equitable funding for legislative staff and offices.

·         A Four-Year Term For The Legislature: Calling it a “a game changer,” Attorney General Schneiderman proposed a constitutional amendment to change the length of legislators’ terms to four years, in order to end the two-year cycle of non-stop re-election fundraising and campaigning.

·         Amend The Penal Law To Prohibit Undisclosed Self-Dealing By Public Officials:  To address the Supreme Court’s decision in Skilling, which severely hampered the federal government’s ability to prosecute cases involving deprivation of “honest services” by public officials, New York State should enact a felony-level crime of “Undisclosed Self-Dealing” to target public officials who further their own financial self-interest while purporting to be acting on behalf of their constituents or government employer.

·         Provide The Attorney General’s Office With Concurrent Jurisdiction Over Public Corruption Crimes:  Through a “standing” order from the Governor, under Executive Law §63, the Attorney General should be empowered to investigate and prosecute public corruption crimes.

To address what he called “the stranglehold that political contributions have on our government,” the Attorney General’s plan also includes fundamental changes to New York State’s campaign finance system:

·         Public Matching Funds: A voluntary public matching funds and disclosure system should be enacted for state elections, modeled on the system that has been successfully implemented in New York City.

·         Dramatically Reduced Contribution Limits:  Campaign contribution limits should be dramatically reduced, including and especially for statewide officeholders, who are currently subject to the highest limits in the nation (excluding states without contribution limits).

·         Close The LLC Loophole: The loophole that allows limited liability corporations to funnel virtually limitless amounts of cash to campaigns must be closed.

·         Eliminate “Housekeeping Committees”: Housekeeping committees now operate as barely regulated slush funds for political parties and legislative campaign committees and must be eliminated.

·         Limit “Pay-To-Play” Contributions: Pay-to-play contributions must be limited in State campaigns as they are now in New York City elections.  Entities that do business with the State, their executives, and those who are paid to lobby state officials should be limited to making extremely modest campaign contributions.

·         Strengthen Enforcement Of Election Laws:  New York State should increase funding and support for the Enforcement Counsel at the Board of Elections, including increasing the number of auditors and investigators. 

Read the Attorney General’s full address.

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