Eric Schneiderman for Attorney General

Schneiderman op-ed: Legislature can still pass ethics reform this session

May 27, 2015

As published in the Albany Times Union  on May 27, 2015

Corruption in New York State government is hardly new. The infamous William M. “Boss” Tweed was a state senator during the worst of his crimes. More recently, at least 30 statewide elected officials and legislators have left office because of criminal or ethical problems since 2000.

But the charges against the leaders of both houses of the Legislature in a single session have made this year truly stand out — even in New York’s long and inglorious history of public corruption.

Remarkably, after the governor and the new leaders of the Legislature met May 13, it became clear that ethics and campaign finance reform are not even on the agenda as the legislative session draws to a close. This glaring omission — if not corrected — would do a disservice to the lion’s share of elected officials who are honorable public servants, tainted by the misconduct of the few.

The people of New York — 92 percent of whom now say corruption is a serious problem — expect and demand government and elected officials to put the public interest ahead of all else. Now is the time for real reform.

There are only two paths to meaningful change: fundamental reform of the system, or more investigations, arrests and prosecutions that further erode public confidence.

In the last four years, Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli and I have partnered to prosecute more than 60 officials and their cronies all across the state, at every level of government, who have abused the public trust. But the parade of arrests will not stop until our leaders take bold steps toward comprehensive reforms.

Fortunately, there is still time before the end of this year’s legislative session to get the job done. That is why I intend to send a program bill to the Senate and the Assembly that includes a comprehensive package of changes that reformers, good government groups and the people of New York are demanding.

The reform blueprint I am proposing — the End New York Corruption Now Act — dramatically lowers contribution limits, sharply restricts contributions by lobbyists, closes donation loopholes so big you can drive a Mack truck through them, and provides matching funds for small contributions to offset the power of mega-donors.

It expands the tools available to state prosecutors to investigate and prosecute public corruption.

It ends a system that allows outside employment income for legislators, who should have no “clients” other than the people of New York. In turn, they would be paid like the full-time professionals they are and get a salary increase. I have also proposed a constitutional amendment to change the period between legislative elections from two to four years, to create at least some time for members of the Assembly and Senate to focus on governing first, and politics second.

These proposals attack a system that cries out for change every time the public interest is ignored in Albany. For every voter who is angry about loopholes and exemptions that make New York tax code look like Swiss cheese; or the inability to pass legislation to prevent irretrievable damage to our environment; or the countless New Yorkers who are working full-time jobs but still living in poverty — the time has come to channel that anger into bold reform.

No one can claim the ideas in this bill are radical or partisan, or that they require exploration and inquiry that exceeds the time remaining before legislators leave Albany for the year.

We know what needs to change. There are three weeks left in this session. There are no more legitimate excuses not to act.