New York State of Corruption: An Opportunity for Reform Amidst a Year of Reckoning

What do Joseph Percoco, George Maziarz, Edward Mangano, Sheldon Silver, Alain Kaloyeros, and Dean Skelos all have in common? Each of these New York public officials will go to trial on corruption charges over the next six months. The slew of trials kicks off today with the trial of Joseph Percoco, a former advisor to Governor Cuomo who is accused of taking over $300,000 from companies in a pay-to-play scheme for influence in the Cuomo administration. Next up, on February 5, George Maziarz goes to trial for filing false campaign expenditure reports in an attempt to conceal almost $100,000 in payments to a former Senate staff member who had quit amid sexual harassment allegations. March 12 brings the trial of Ed Mangano, the former Nassau County Executive charged with bribery, wire fraud, and extortion for receiving almost $500,000, free vacations, furniture, jewelry, home renovations, and other gifts as bribes and kickbacks. Sheldon Silver will be re-tried on April 16, after his conviction for obtaining nearly $4 million in bribes was vacated last year following the Supreme Court’s decision in McDonnell v. United States. In May, the former President of the SUNY Polytechnic Institute Alain Kaloyeros will stand trial for the same bribery scheme that ensnared Mr. Percoco. And finally, on June 18, Dean Skelos will be re-tried after his conviction on bribery charges was, like Mr. Silver’s, overturned in light of the Supreme Court’s McDonnell decision.

These six trials—all involving high-profile public officials, bribery and extortion charges, high stakes, and large sums of money—will receive considerable amounts of attention from the media and public, and will certainly provide much fodder for blogs like this one. While every month from January to June will bring a trial with its own drama and complexities, we can step back at the outset and consider what these trials collectively mean for corruption and ethics reform in New York. The trials will undeniably shake the public’s trust in public officials. Will these trials fuel cynicism that makes New Yorkers less likely to participate in the political process—or might these trials instead spark optimism that creates the political momentum for ethics reform?

On the one hand, the media attention to the trials will undoubtedly cast a shadow on New York politics, and will likely further undermine trust in state and local government. As the New York Times noted, “it seems inevitable that Albany’s dirty laundry, and the actions of some of its power participants, will once again be hung for examination.” In addition to the outcomes of the trials themselves, the evidence introduced (including bank, telephone, and email records) of senior Albany officials could further undermine public trust in politicians and public officials across the state. For example, Robert Muica, Kelly Cummings, and Brian Merara, who have all served in the top echelons of New York state government as advisors, spokespeople, and lobbyists, will all provide probative and incriminating evidence in the upcoming trials. As Blair Horner, the Executive Director of the New York Public Interest Research Group, said: “It will paint a negative picture of politics in New York in terms of the revelations that will come out in these cases.” And as Professor Stephenson noted last month, such negative attention could create cynicism that dampens political engagement and thus reduces pressure on elected officials to curtail corruption and enact meaningful reform.

However, this negative attention could also lead to positive results by galvanizing Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State legislature to finally push through badly-needed ethics reforms. 2018 is an election year for the New York Governor, Attorney General, Comptroller, all 63 New York State Senate seats, and all 150 New York State Assembly seats. This election is particularly important for Governor Cuomo, because success in his re-election bid could further any future national ambitions, including for the Presidency in 2020. Moreover, the corruption trials are likely to impact public perception and popular support of the Governor, given his close connection to several of the trials. For example, prosecutors have gathered bank, telephone, and email records from officials in the Governor’s administration, several of his former senior aides have or will testify in the trials, and the Governor himself was interviewed by the U.S. Attorneys’ Office regarding the Percoco prosecution.  In fact, the upcoming trials are already manifesting themselves as a political thorn for Governor Cuomo. Marc Molinaro, the Dutchess County Executive who is considering running for Governor, has boldly stated that Governor Cuomo “has not done enough to confront a culture of corruption that has been allowed either through deliberate indifference or total acceptance that this is the way it ought to be.”

In response to such criticism, Governor Cuomo has already proposed several new ethics reforms, including a ban on outside income for legislators and easier voting access, as well as broader political reforms including same-day voting registration, public financing of campaigns, and a state constitutional amendment to limit outside spending for legislators. Admittedly, Governor Cuomo has previously proposed similar reforms—some of which have even been introduced as proposed legislation in past sessions—without success. But just as the upcoming string of corruption trials could provide positive political pressure on Governor Cuomo, they could have a similarly positive impact on the legislative agenda (which conveniently extends from January until June, overlapping almost exactly with the upcoming trials). Calls for legislative change have already begun. Capitalizing on the upcoming trials, interest groups including the Citizens Union, New York Public Interest Group, Reinvent Albany, Common Cause, and League of Women Voters, have launched a “Restore Public Trust” Campaign. The campaign has proposed several concrete ethics reforms, including accountable government contracting, budget transparency, banning “pay to play,” banning unlimited campaign contributions via LLCs, stricter limits on outside income for public officials, and effective watchdog agencies. Others have called for changes to New York’s weak election laws and campaign finance system.

There are already encouraging signs that these reforms may be considered more seriously in light of the public scrutiny of the upcoming legislative session. For example, New York State Senate Republican Majority Leader John Flanagan, who has previously not backed significant anticorruption reforms, has already indicated a willingness to reexamine the state’s economic development contracts and is even potentially open to legislation that would reinstate the comptroller’s ability to oversee economic development. Regardless of the likelihood of success and merits of the specific reforms, the upcoming trials undoubtedly shine a light on the legislature, and “the corruption parade could drive the session.”

It is impossible to predict the details and impact of each of the upcoming high-profile corruption trials in New York. Over the coming months, it will be important to track the public perception of elected officials, legislative ethics reform, and the role of Governor Cuomo in leading the charge of such reform. One thing is clear: public confidence in, and the ability of, Governor Cuomo and the state legislature to tackle corruption in New York is a reflection of the most significant aggregate outcome of the upcoming corruption trials in New York.

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