Appoint an ethics panel with guts
For years, I have been writing about the need for the public to have faith in the governmental process. Now it looks like we may be on the verge of a major ethics advance and Governor Andrew Cuomo deserves the lion’s share of the credit for seemingly accomplishing something that nobody else could get done. Of course, it was a process. Great newspapers and public radio and the so-called “goo-goo” (good government) groups have been calling for these reforms for years. The United States attorneys have been doing their jobs and indicting legislators in a way that has sent paroxysms of fear throughout the Legislature.
Now for the first time, we are told that there will be a new body overseeing both the executive and legislative branches of government. No more will we see the Legislature hiding behind the fiction that since they are a separate branch of government, they are therefore untouchable. Furthermore, there will be a series of new indictments as if to emphasize the warning, “This had better not be just another cosmetic attempt to cover over the ethical warts of those who are using their power to help themselves and their friends.” To make the point and to calm the public anger, those who go to jail from now on may lose their pensions. Imagine that — right now, if you commit a crime as a public official, you still keep your pension.
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and his powerful Senate counterpart, Dean Skelos, deserve credit as well. They and their members had the most to lose but these two men will be remembered as the legislators who made it happen. Their conferences want them to get out in front and take the pain and the slings and arrows of the press and the critics. Things had grown so hot that virtually everyone in the system could sense the danger. The feds were once again looking under every rock for crimes and conflicts of interest. The governor threatened to appoint a Moreland Act Commission to investigate major corruption. Surely, that would have sucked in some of the bad actors who were in it up to their necks.
The new reforms include getting legislators — including the attorney-legislators and the so-called “consultants” — to disclose money they receive from outside sources, but we now face the devil as in the old phrase, “… the devil is in the details.” Now we will see who gets appointed to the new group that will oversee the process. In the end, it will come down to the savvy and the guts and the commitment of the men and women who are appointed to oversee the ethics of people who have the power to bite back.
One of the transformational figures in all of this is a man some have forgotten. His name is David Grandeau, former executive director of the state Commission on Lobbying. He was so committed when he ran the old commission that everyone (but the people) wanted him out of his job, and he was unceremoniously dumped as the people in power did away with his organization. But his dismissal from the system may just have been the major catalyst for much of what has come since that time. There was an honest man with a candle trying to do his job and he was axed for doing it. That was supposed to be a signal for everyone to watch themselves, but he has prevailed. They ought to erect a statue of the guy in front of the Legislature and the present governor should put him back in the kind of watchdog role he proved he could handle.
Now Governor Cuomo and the legislative leaders will have to appoint the new corruption hunters. If they put lap dogs on that oversight group we will know that there has been some serious winking and nodding going on. Corruption is as old as mankind. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Maybe this time it will work, at least until someone figures out how to game the system again. Maybe with the feds and the DA’s and the appropriately ambitious governor working together, Tombstone will be cleaned up once more.
Originally published in the Legislative Gazette, 6/7/2011