Governor Cuomo surprised NYU Law yesterday when he announced that today he would give a speech in Lipton Hall: somewhat inappropriately, the Governor wanted to talk about government ethics. New Yorkers have been rocked the last few weeks, first by the news that Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver had been indicted as part of a corruption probe, and then that State Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos was also being targeted. Governor Cuomo described the three of them as the "three amigos" in his State of the Union speech, so this news hit him hard.
The Governor's response was to announce a new five point plan while at NYU. First, he argued that the idea of a citizen-legislator should be revisited; it might not be feasible to expect legislators to work part time (currently only for six months out of the year). They also need a raise from their current salary, a paltry $79,500 for six months of work (though that number is significantly higher when factoring in per diem expenditures). The supposedly skimpy salary and part time status mean that murky sources of outside income become too tempting for many.
Mr. Cuomo also called for more disclosure - instead of follow the money, "explain the money", he said. He coupled this with an end to pension payments and Assembly benefits for those who are convicted of corruption, and also called for closer scrutiny of per diem usage. He called for an end to campaign funds for personal use as well. The real bombshell came when the Governor stated that he would refuse to sign a budget until his demands for reform were met. That will surely end New York's streak of on-time budgets, which currently stands at four.
It was a breathless display of willful blindness by the Governor. If the past few weeks have taught New York anything, it is that the most trusted corruption fighters are the lawyers in the U.S. Attorney's Office, not the Governor's Office, with none taking more credit than the zealous Preet Bharara. Governor Cuomo has essentially governed the state for several years with Dean Skelos and Sheldon Silver - the "three men in a room" often come to major policy decisions in secret, and with no accountability. Is Governor Cuomo proposing his plan now because he is actually concerned with rooting out corruption? Or does he merely wish to deflect attention away from himself, now that Preet Bharara has set his sights on the "three amigos"?
It is hard to find Governor Cuomo's concern with ethical government leadership genuine, when he had the Moreland Commission prematurely disbanded last year. The Moreland Commission was supposed to investigate public corruption within the state government, but Governor Cuomo leaned on the Commission to limit its scope, and then scrapped it in exchange for a set of weak new anti-corruption laws. Of course, if politicians are asking investigators to stop looking, and agreeing to new laws in exchange for having the probe dropped, that seems like a paradigmatic example of a good time to continue investigating. Fortunately, Preet Bharara obtained the Commission's files before they were destroyed.
At the end of his speech Governor Cuomo tried to sound an optimistic note, saying that we must "work together" to make New York a better place, because "it is the right thing to do, and it is the smart thing to do." Unfortunately, that optimism seems misplaced as long as the Governor is the one spearheading the reform. While Albany muddles along towards brinkmanship, we all might be better served to hope that the U.S. Attorney's office continues to aggressively pursue the corrupt men in power, so that we can all have a little faith in government restored.
*Thomas Warns is a J.D. Candidate in the Class of 2015 at New York University, and the Editor-in-Chief for the N.Y.U. Journal of Law & Liberty.