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New York on Ethics Scandals: Meh

With so little public outrage over the stream of scandals in Albany, ethics reform is taking a backseat to the budget.

By Sarah Laskow
Monday, March 14th, 2011
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Sen. Carl Kruger

When I talked to the Center for Public Integrity’s Caitlin Ginley last week, she reminded me that, as a rule, ethics reforms pass only when some sort of scandal prompts citizens to outrage and politicians to action.

New York seems determined to break that rule.

Last week, the FBI announced charges against yet another Albany politician. This time, the offender was State Senator Carl Kruger. Kruger is accused of a slew of misdeeds — of being bought off in most of the ways one can be bought off.

In one scenario, a lobbyist would receive money from a client and deposit a certain sum in a bank account linked to Kruger. Kruger would then finagle whatever government action the client needed — generally to have bill delayed or pushed forward or to enlist Kruger’s voice for or against a certain cause. The complaint against Kruger also charges that, in at least one case, Kruger took bribes directly. In another scenario, the complaint alleges, Kruger would steer influence-seekers to Solomon Kalish, who would accept the money and split it with Kruger.

In many states — in most states, even — this sort of scandal would be enough to send legislators running to their desks, ready to vote for ethics reform to prove to the public that this is not how we do business here. But not in Albany.

Ethics reform is on the table, sure. But in the immediate aftermath of the scandal, no one is rushing to the state house to pass some version of the ethics reform legislation that’s been kicking around since Gov. Paterson was in office. Gov. Andrew Cuomo reiterated that it was a priority this term, but that only earned him an ear-boxing from powerful New York Post columnist Fred Dicker, who’s generally been positive about Cuomo’s term so far.

“It’s hard to understand how a skilled strategist like Cuomo could miss such a once-in-a-political lifetime opportunity,” Dicker wrote.

But perhaps Cuomo is wise to keep a tight hold on his political capital for now. He says he wants to pass a budget before tackling ethics. If he made ethics reform a priority right now, before the budget passed, both Republicans and Democrats would have more bargaining chips: They could trade their votes on ethics for this or that provision in the budget. If he waits until the budget passes, Cuomo can count the political chits he has left, before forming his strategy for ethics reform.

Plus, ethics reform can only exert an indirect influence on the sort of corruption that Kruger is accused of. If you ever read an ethics statute, you’ll find that the space dedicated to guarding against this behavior is minimal: Usually there’s one or two lines stating that quid pro quos are illegal.

Ferreting out corruption, though, is generally left to the feds. Ethics bodies don’t have the money or authority to do the type of investigation that fingered Kruger. Instead, they spend their time dealing with less salacious claims, like the one The Center for Justice & Democracy filed against the Medicaid Design Team.

The best that ethics laws can do is send a signal to politicians in office and to potential candidates that this sort of behavior isn’t tolerated. But in New York, it is tolerated. Some politician is going to have to take far more than $1 million in bribes to really get this state’s outrage going.