Best Practices for a “Database of Deals”

Last month, Joseph Percoco, former aide to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, was found guilty of conspiracy to commit fraud and soliciting bribes for nearly $300,000 in connection to several multimillion-dollar economic development contracts in upstate New York. Next month, Alain Kaloyeros, the former President of the State University of New York Polytechnic Institute, will similarly go to trial on federal bid rigging, fraud, and bribery charges related to the upstate economic development project the “Buffalo Billion.” As I previously wrote, these are two of six high-profile corruption trials in New York this year—cases that have already generated calls for ethics reform (see here, here, and here). While similar calls for reform after the high-profile convictions of former New York state legislators Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos were largely ignored, one modest proposal seems particularly promising: creating a public database of businesses and organizations that are awarded state economic development contracts and grants.

New York state and local governments spend over $8 billion on economic development programs each year, the most of any state in the country. However, little clarity exists about which companies receive subsidies, the value or amount of these subsidies, the employment and investment commitments tied to these subsidies, and whether these commitments are being met. This opacity not only makes it difficult to assess the successes and failures of development programs, but also creates opportunities for the type of corruption that ensnarled Mr. Percoco and Mr. Kaloyeros. Creating a database of all public economic development benefits (including grants, loans, or tax abatements) would increase transparency and accountability. Such a “Database of Deals” would provide a central source for authorities to monitor and flag irregularities, increasing public confidence in the procurement process, and deterring corruption by individuals who know that the public can assess the return on investment for each economic development project.

The recently passed 2019 New York State Budget included billions of dollars in new appropriations for economic development, yet bi-partisan legislation creating a “Database of Deals” was dropped from the budget the day before it passed. However, the New York state legislature still has several months to pass similar legislation. Moreover, six other states—including Florida, Maryland, Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin—have created and implemented similar searchable databases after calls for greater transparency and accountability. If and when New York, and other states, create similar databases, there are certain “best practices” that they ought to follow, to maximize the effectiveness of these databases in deterring corruption.

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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?

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To Gauge McDonnell’s Impact, Menendez—Not Skelos or Silver—Is the Case To Watch

In June 2016, the United States Supreme Court vacated the conviction of former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell. McDonnell had been convicted for accepting loans, gifts, vacations, and other valuable items from a businessman. In return, Governor McDonnell allegedly promised or performed a number of “official acts,” mostly in connection with trying to help the businessman get state government support for a nutritional supplement his company was developing. The Supreme Court vacated the conviction on the grounds that the trial court improperly instructed the jury on what conduct could count as an “official act” (the “quo” in a quid pro quo) under the federal bribery statute. In particular, the trial court had instructed the jury that “official acts” could include things like helping the businessman by arranging meetings with state government decision-makers, hosting an event to promote his business, or suggesting that subordinates speak to him. The Supreme Court ruled that this definition of “official act” was too broad, since it encompassed almost any act a government official takes.

How much did McDonnell change the landscape for federal corruption prosecutions in the United States? Some worry that it has already had a large and unfortunate impact, and point to recent developments in New York: Last July, a little over a year after the McDonnell decision, a federal appeals court relied on McDonnell as the basis for vacating the conviction of Sheldon Silver, the former New York State Assembly Speaker who was found guilty in 2015 for taking millions in payments in return for supporting legislation and directing grants that helped the payers. And just last month, another panel of that appellate court also relied on McDonnell in vacating the conviction of former New York State Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, who was convicted in 2015 (along with his son Adam) for bribery, extortion, and conspiracy. According to prosecutors, Skelos had promised votes and taken actions benefitting three companies in exchange for providing his son with consulting fees, a job, and direct payments.

Skelos’ and Silver’s convictions were seen as a victory for federal prosecutors, and a much-overdue effort to clean up the notoriously corrupt New York state government. Many commentators pointed to the recent appellate court rulings vacating those convictions as evidence of McDonnell’s broad and malign effects on efforts to clean up corruption (see, for example here , here, and here). But while the vacations of these convictions are a setback for anticorruption advocates, they do not actually reveal much about the reach of McDonnell, nor are they likely to materially change the fates of Skelos and Silver. The much more important case to watch—the one that will be a better indicator of McDonnell’s long-term impact— is the trial of New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez. Continue reading

A Step in the Wrong Direction: How Term Limits Could Increase Corruption

The recent federal corruption convictions of Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos, longtime New York legislative leaders, have rightly led many to offer suggestions for preventing political corruption by elected officials. In two posts on this blog, Sarah suggested a mechanism for creating additional parties to make elections more competitive, and, in an earlier post, she proposed limiting New York legislators’ opportunity to take on additional employment. Others have suggested increasing legislator pay, amending campaign finance laws to close the “LLC loophole,” and increasing enforcement, including with independent ethics officers. This list is far from exhaustive.

One other “fix” that comes up again and again: term limits for legislators. Soon after the corruption scandal involving Silver and Skelos hit the news, a New York Post opinion piece called for term limits. And since Silver and Skelos were convicted, the calls have continued for term limits as part of a package of reforms (see, for example, here, here, and here). Although no one asserts that term limits are the silver bullet for ending corruption, many claim that term limits can play a constructive role as part of a comprehensive anticorruption package. But I am not convinced that term limits actually reduce the likelihood of corruption. Not only are term limits unlikely to be much help, but—as others have also argued (see here and here)—term limits might even increase corruption. Here’s why:

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The Corruption Is Too Damn High: Reforming Albany by Creating Additional Parties

New York state politics appears to be rife with systematic corruption, a truth underscored by the fact that two of New York’s most powerful politicians—Former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former State Senate Majority Leader Dean G. Skelos–will soon be headed to trial for corruption. What can be done about this? Federal government involvement may do some good, as the federal prosecutions of Silver and Skelos demonstrate; U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara is conducting many other investigations that have sent a chill of fear through Albany’s corrupt actors. Yet the threat of prosecution alone might not be enough, which as led many people, including contributors to this blog, to suggest a range of other reforms designed to reduce the motive or opportunity for New York state politicians to exploit their power for private gain. Such proposals include reducing or eliminating the ability of legislators to receive outside income, pinpointing the problem that Albany is far removed from the cultural and business heart of New York, and introducing term limits for state legislators.

Yet there is another reform possibility that has not been discussed much and might be more practical than it initially seems: activists devoted to fighting corruption could create an additional political party in effectively one-party districts. There are many political activists in New York who care deeply about good governance. For example, State Senator Liz Krueger started a “No Bad Apples” PAC to “recruit, train and support progressive, reform-minded candidates for the New York State Senate.” Enthusiasm and resources that now go to efforts like that within one of the two major parties could instead be channeled to the creation of “No Bad Apples”-type parties in one-party districts. It would make sense for progressive activists to create spin-off parties to contest safe Democratic seats and conservative activists to create spin-off parties to contest safe Republican ones.

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