Another ethics bombshell just hit New York: the arrest of Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin. The charges against Benjamin stem from an alleged misuse of his public office to financially benefit a big campaign contributor. Of course, Benjamin deserves to have his side heard, but the indictment is fresh evidence that the state’s ethics oversight is a failure.
According to the federal indictment, Benjamin used his role as then-state senator to obtain a grant for an individual who donated to his Senate campaign and became a significant donor to Benjamin’s failed bid for New York City comptroller. In other words, he secured taxpayer money in direct exchange for someone funneling him campaign cash, including public matching funds.
The courts will sort this all out, but misuse of public office for personal (or political) gain is a story that has been told too often in state government. The former Senate majority leader went to prison for misuse of his office; the now deceased former Assembly speaker did too; and as we know, Gov. Hochul’s predecessor is challenging claims that he misused his public office as well.
And it’s not just elected officials. Top aides to the former governor also were convicted of corruption, along with the campaign contributors they conspired with.
The larger question is why does this keep happening? The answer is that the state simply does not take ethics enforcement seriously. It’s common knowledge: People behave differently when they know that rules are enforced. Drivers follow speed limits when they see patrol cars. When there are no patrol cars for miles on end, they’ll go as fast as they damn well please.
Albany is a highway without patrol cars.
It should be lost on no one that many of the state’s major corruption scandals — including the Benjamin arrest — were the result of federal investigations, not state ones. If the feds are not watching, or there is no federal legal violation, enforcement is left to state ethics watchdogs.
In Albany, the state has never established an independent ethics watchdog. The most recent iterations — the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, which monitors the executive branch, and the Legislative Ethics Commission, which monitors the Legislature — are controlled by individuals who are directly appointed by the governor and the legislative leaders. Ditto the state inspector general, who reports to the governor’s office.
Having ethics watchdogs chosen by the individuals that they are supposed to regulate is an obvious problem and at the heart of why scandals occur.
Hochul understood this and advanced a plan in January that she said would ensure that state officials were not directly choosing their own watchdogs. Yet the final agreement in the state budget last week fell far short of that.
Under that new law, cobbled together in secret negotiations between the governor and the legislative leaders, the new agency won’t be independent. Its commission will have an 11-member board: three members appointed by the governor, two by the Senate majority leader, two by the Assembly speaker, one by the Assembly minority leader, one by the Senate minority leader, one by the attorney general and one by the comptroller.
Why should the governor and the leaders of the legislative majorities be entitled to more than one appointment? There is no reason, but it does smack of a classic deal to allow the three leaders to dominate the new agency. Quick math shows that those seven appointees would dominate the new ethics agency.
There is an added wrinkle: New York law school deans would vet those applicants to determine qualifications, using criteria ranging from their professional backgrounds to their geographic diversity. Law schools are involved in lobbying the state government, and in any event, their role won’t make the ethics agency independent.
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Of course, that’s not to say that the plan does not offer improvements over the awful ethics system now in place. But the cornerstone of effective ethics oversight is independence, and on that basis alone, this proposal fails, and fails miserably.
New York has had too many ethical scandals that have created a crisis in public confidence in state government. History shows that whatever ethics agency is put in place will be around for years. Unfortunately, New York’s leaders squandered their reform opportunity.
Of course, the vast majority of elected officials are honest, professional and reasonable, but having a weak state ethics law enforced by individuals who are directly tied to the political establishment creates a culture where individuals believe they can scheme to game the system for personal gain.
This latest scandal underscores the need for independent ethics oversight. The governor and the leaders have time this session. They must go back to the drawing board and fix their latest deal.
Horner is executive director of NYPIRG.