Truly independent panel of citizens only way to achieve ethics reform
By L.D. DAVIDSON
For The Sunday Gazette
The insider’s game is playing out again in Albany. Budget time has arrived. Once again it is the season for double-talk from New York state political leaders about their willingness to do actual ethics reform.
As it is, the culture of public corruption in Albany is entrenched. The pattern of politicians posturing with platitudes about their willingness to enact real ethics reform goes back to even before the days of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Ethics reform has become the headless horseman of New York state politics.
The basic problem is that it is not in the interest of legislators and governors to take the relatively simple steps needed to clean up New York state politics.
No incentive exists for political insiders to change a rotten status quo when that status quo serves their own private interests. This same dynamic also prevents effective campaign finance reform as well as reapportionment reform.
The more than two dozen prosecutions of state legislators in the last few years indicate that the public needs an independent ethics panel. But what does independent truly mean?
It means creating an ethics panel NOT selected by either a governor or legislative leaders. In fact, no elected state official should be allowed to have ANY input whatsoever on an independent ethics panel.
Positions on such a panel should be selected from independent New York state voters on the basis of a competitive civil service test. Moreover, each of 12 members of the ethics panel should be restricted to one term of six years with staggered elections every two years.
Only a truly independent panel of members with no ties to elected New York state politicians can provide an ethics oversight process that might have a chance to reduce the scope of corruption in New York state government.
The panel itself would have to be given the authority to send indictments to grand juries comprising randomly selected citizens. Otherwise, the panel could too easily be corrupted by political insiders.
I was amused recently to read comments by Theodore Roosevelt about his experience as a young, ambitious New York state assemblyman in the Albany of 1882. He could have been writing about Albany in 2014.
Roosevelt estimated that about one-third of the state Legislature was blatantly corrupt. Furthermore, he wrote about members of the Legislature openly trading influence with corporate backers, being given bills they were bribed to sponsor.
Many other bills were sponsored that seemed to be in the public interest, bills that made their sponsors look sincere, but proposed by legislators who “had not the slightest intention of passing them.”
Roosevelt even wrote about an invitation to a private lunch with his Uncle James at which he was told that it was “a good thing he had dabbled in reform” but “now was the time to leave politics and to identify with the right people.” His uncle explained that there would always be an “inner circle” of corporate executives, politicians, lawyers and judges “to control others and obtain the real rewards.”
Today most media can be relied upon most of the time to report empty political rhetoric as if it reflects actual policy intention. Often it doesn’t.
We can gauge the gravity of the public information problem when regional newspapers with good reputations start running blueberry pie-eating contests on their front pages.
The public perception — according to opinion polls whose independence certainly deserves to be questioned — is that Gov. Andrew Cuomo is popular because he gets things done.
Meanwhile, in reality, on the three biggest issues facing New York state, he has gotten next to nothing done beyond rhetoric: no meaningful ethics reform, no campaign finance reform and no new reapportionment rules so election outcomes can’t be fixed by a small group of insiders. He has also made a huge mess of New York state public educational policy and practice.
Moreover, his administration has overseen a major transfer of public money to private corporations and businesses through tax breaks and economic development grants. He has graced New Yorkers with a major expansion of gambling.
The political lesson from Cuomo’s first term is that rhetorical stances can be effective screens for actual policies. As far as the latest rhetoric from the governor and the legislative leaders about ethics reform goes, I’ll believe it is sincere when it becomes actual law.
Many people actually care about having cleaner government. Among informed people who have access to quality information, albeit an ever more challenging problem, patience is at a low point.
People want politicians who are not corrupt, and private business leaders who can compete without funneling off public money, and media leaders that provide higher value news information.
We need a fully independent ethics panel. We needed it in 2001, in 1970, in 1925, in 1882 and we need it more than ever in 2014, especially when quality news is vanishing amid junk information and expanded advertising.
L.D. Davidson lives in Amsterdam and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.