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Dysfunction Is a Function

Fighting Albany corruption seemed to be one of the most urgent messages of the election, but Governor-elect Andrew Cuomo is sending signals that it is no longer a top pritority.

Voters are singing a similar tune—a Nov. 15 Siena poll found that only 22 percent of New Yorker’s polled think ethics reform is a top priority.

The time between Election Day and the gubernatorial inauguration is a time for the incoming governor to send messages about what his priorities will be. If a recent press conference between Cuomo and Attorney General-elect Eric Schneiderman is any indication, fighting corruption in Albany is not at the top of his list. The two met officially for the first time after winning their new positions and, when asked whether he would be willing to sign an executive order allowing Schneiderman to investigate public corruption, Cuomo said it is something he would be talking about “as we go forward.” He did not allow Schniederman to follow up. Cuomo told gathered press representatives that he wants “to see what happens with ethics reform with the Legislature, but there are a number of options that can be pursued.”

Cuomo has already faced charges that he selectively went after instances of corruption involving his Democratic colleagues. But what is so disappointing about Cuomo’s lack of urgency is that we have been waiting for the Legislature to deliver meaningful ethics reform for quite some time.

Amid last year’s scandals, the Legislature passed a modest bill but didn’t go as far as Gov. David Paterson wanted, and he vetoed it. The Legislature will not likely be in any hurry to hand over investigatory powers to an outside body.

In fact, even if the Legislature is suddenly in the mood for reform this year, they won’t be getting to anything very quickly; recounts and court battles in three Senate races will leave control of that body in doubt, possibly for months; the margin of control for either party will likely be narrow; and getting consensus on legislation won’t be easy. And before ethics issues are brought to the table, they’ll need to tackle the budget and the $9 billion deficit facing the state.

What is it exactly that Cuomo could do? The Democratic candidates in the AG primary talked a lot about having the governor sign an executive order giving the AG the power to go after public corruption. Eric Dinallo, who ran in the primary and is credited for helping then-AG Eliot Spitzer use the once-obscure Martin Act to go after Wall Street, called on Paterson to sign such an executive order to allow the AG to investigate the legislature and the governor.

Dinallo told City Hall that he would still like to see Paterson sign such an order. He has little faith the Legislature will take action. “Call me crazy,” he told City Hall, “but I think it’s unlikely that the Albany Legislature is going to pass laws for their own investigation and prosecution.”

So what messages has Cuomo sent regarding ethics reform? He has stocked his transition team with some interesting characters. Sure, most of the appointments are symbolic and most of the administration’s ideas will come from his closest advisors, but announcing the transition team is a good way to send a message. He has picked a number of prominent Republicans and Democrats; former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly have been tapped to help Cuomo find staffers for public-safety jobs. Cuomo’s rival during his first and failed bid for governor, former Comptroller Carl McCall, is on board, as are a slew of legislators and business people.

Perhaps the most interesting addition to Cuomo’s team isn’t one of his rivals but someone else’s.

Ken Langone, former head of the New York Stock Exchange and co-founder of Home Depot, who is known for being Spitzer’s arch nemesis, is part of Cuomo’s financial team. His appointment is surely a message to Wall Street that the Cuomo administration is sympathetic to their “plight.” But more than that, it is a clear signal that Cuomo is not Eliot Spitzer.

That is a message that a number of legislators and Wall Street executives surely welcome, but it should be concerning to those who appreciated Spitzer’s dogged pursuit of corruption. Saying that Langone was Spitzer’s arch nemesis might not quite convey the level of hatred between the two. The recently released film Client 9 chronicles Spitzer’s rise and fall—and the seething animosity Langone showed toward Spitzer. The film flirts with the idea that Spitzer’s predilection for prostitutes may have been unearthed with the help of Republican operatives like Roger Stone and backed by the extremely powerful enemies he made during his time as AG.

Langone was interviewed by CNBC shortly after the Spitzer scandal broke. “Would you say you were surprised by this news?” asked the correspondent. “Not at all,” Langone replied. “I had no doubt about his lack of character and integrity. It would only be a matter of time. I didn’t think he would do it this soon or the way he did it. But I know for sure he went himself to a post office and bought $2,800 worth of mail orders to send to the hooker.”

The correspondent asked how Langone knew about Spitzer’s trip to the post office and the exact amount of money he spent.

“I know it,” Langone replied. “I know somebody who was standing in back of him in line. . . . We all have our own private hells. I hope his private hell is hotter than anybody else’s.”

Spitzer is certainly an easy target after his scandal and the perception that he failed as governor, but there isn’t much question that as AG he was effective and ahead of the curve. To forget that is dangerous.

Cuomo does seem to have taken certain lessons from Spitzer; in a late October interview with The New York Times, Cuomo laid out how he planned to run a permanent campaign against unions so as to protect himself from push-back against planned budget cuts. But at the same time, the Times said he planned to “lavish attention on individual legislators, who he says are sick of being demonized and eager for accomplishment after years of gridlock and enmity.” Cuomo was quoted as saying, “They really don’t want to be reviled,” referring to legislators. “They really don’t. First of all, nobody does—especially a politician!”

But Cuomo is not naïve; he knows how the game is played. Legislators don’t mind being reviled as long as they keep their seats. They will have no problem standing in the way of ethics legislation if there is a chance such legislation could lead to their downfall. Cuomo can lavish attention on them all he wants, but it won’t accomplish anything as long as there are members of the Legislature who are afraid of what tough ethics legislation would mean to their careers. We hope that when he takes office, Cuomo will find the nerve to send a stronger message.

—David King

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