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Ethics reform a "black and white" issue for Cuomo

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New York's new governor, Andrew Cuomo, campaigned on a pledge to clean up Albany. State government has been plagued by scandals and investigations, from "troopergate" which saw theft of services charges against the former Senate Majority leader Joe Bruno, to charges brought against former comptroller Alan Hevesi.

Cuomo drew applause when he repeated his pledge of ethics reform during his State of the State speech Wednesday. Karen DeWitt has more.

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Karen DeWitt
NYS Capitol Correspondent

Cuomo says the barrage of news in the past few years about politicians indicted, convicted, and in some case, sent to prison on corruption charges, has further led to the erosion of faith in government. Cuomo, as Attorney General, led many of those investigations.

“Every time there’s another headline, there’s another cut on the body politic, and a little more trust has bled out,” Cuomo said. “And this has gone on and on and on.”

Cuomo’s ideas include public financing for elections, and limits to campaign contributions by individuals and corporations. He also wants to create an independent redistricting commission to end the practice of gerrymandered congressional and state legislative districts that critics say are drawn to suit the politicians, not the voters.    

Blair Horner, with the New York Public Interest Research Group, is cautiously optimistic.

“In every State of the State there’s lots of good ideas, they don’t all get done,” said Horner. “We’ll have to see.”

Horner says one of the more difficult hurdles might be getting the Republican led Senate to agree to use taxpayer money to fund political campaigns.

“I think it will be a hugely difficult sell in the Senate,” Horner said.

The Democratic controlled Assembly has approved public financing of campaigns in the past.

Cuomo also wants to revamp the state’s patchwork system of ethics monitoring to create an independent entity to police ethics for all branches of government.

Cuomo’s predecessor, Eliot Spitzer, came into office just four years ago seeking an overhaul of state ethics laws. Spitzer eventually agreed to a weaker version of his proposal, and permitted the legislature to keep its own system of ethics oversight, a move he was criticized for at the time. The resulting ethics agency, the Commission on Public Integrity, has been controversial at times. It was the subject of a scathing report by the State Inspector General, which accused the panel of passing information to Spitzer regarding the co-called Troopergate scandal.

Cuomo seems well aware that past efforts at reform have not measured up. He promised he would not agree to a bill that was “watered down or half baked”.

The new governor also wants state lawmakers to more fully disclose their outside income, so the public can know about potential conflicts of interest. New York has a part time legislature, and it’s perfectly legal for legislators to hold other jobs. The disclosure of the nature of those jobs has been minimal, though, as outlined during weeks of testimony in former Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno’s federal corruption trial. Bruno was convicted on two counts of corruption, but the portion of the law he was convicted under was struck down by the US Supreme Court. His case is on appeal.

Both Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos are lawyers. In the past, Silver has been reluctant to disclose the sources of his income from his law firm, saying it would violate attorney client privilege. The Speaker, beginning last year, has said he’s more open to greater disclosure.

“The legislature passed a bill last year that required disclosure, full disclosure, of outside income,” Silver told reporters after the governor’s speech.

That bill was later vetoed by then Governor David Paterson, who said the disclosure requirements and other provisions did not go far enough.

Speaker Silver says he expects to “find common ground” with the new governor to do ethics “in the appropriate way” in 2011.

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