Governor’s Loyalists Cannot Credibly Enforce State Campaign Finance and Ethics Laws

Seth Agata, recently appointed the head of the state ethics enforcement agency, JCOPE, is Governor Cuomo’s former top lawyer. Prior to his appointment heading JCOPE, Mr. Agata represented the governor before JCOPE. Risa Sugarman, the enforcement counsel for the NYS Board of Elections has a long history as aide to the governor and is widely perceived as being one of his loyalists. Their relationship to Governor Cuomo colors everything they do, and their enforcement actions will always be undercut by suspicions that they are politically motivated—especially high profile investigations of the governor’s political foes—like the one targeting Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Sports fans would think it was completely crazy—utterly unacceptable—to use referees employed by the home team. Their calls would always be in doubt, no matter their integrity and tough-mindedness. This is why the league, not the home team, employs the refs. Similarly, it does not matter how professional and competent Agata and Sugarman are, they are seen as the governor’s people. There is nothing wrong with being loyal to a political leader you admire. But that relationship means you are inherently not independent or impartial. New York State needs independent ethics enforcers authorities so their enforcement actions are seen as fair and impartial.

Unfortunately, Risa Sugarman’s perceived closeness to Governor Cuomo has cast a big shadow over the State BOE’s first high-profile enforcement action in years. What could or should be something that watchdog groups applaud has instead turned into a drama straight out of House of Cards.

Earlier this week, someone leaked to the press a high stakes criminal referral from Sugarman to Manhattan D.A. Cy Vance and U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara. Sugarman’s referral documents extensive efforts by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s election campaign to route large contributions through Democratic Party County Committees to Democrats running for the state senate in a handful of contested seats upstate. Sugarman says the whole scheme was designed to avoid limits on campaign contributions. Team de Blasio, says it is all legal and even customary. We do not have the expertise to sort through the extremely arcane rules in question, but we have big questions about the timing and impartiality of the investigation.

Sugarman’s ties to Cuomo raise these questions:

  1. Why isn’t Joe Percoco, the Governor’s top political aide, named in Sugarman’s criminal referral? Has he been subpoenaed by prosecutors? According to Politico, Percoco was sent email updates and a memo explaining Team de Blasio’s scheme as it unfolded in 2014. At the time, Percoco ran the State Democratic Party Campaign Committee for Governor Cuomo, and was central to the flow of Democratic fundraising dollars in New York. What was his role, if any, in routing contributions to candidates for the State Senate? Does the Governor’s office have any connection whatsoever to this investigation? Anything at all?
  2. Who leaked the criminal referral to the NY Daily News? De Blasio’s lawyer claims it was Sugarman; was it?
  3. Is this investigation motivated by a much bigger political game in which Governor Cuomo encouraged/spurred/initiated Sugarman’s investigation to achieve a number of goals: (a) torpedo the efforts of democrats to regain the state senate by scaring off potential big democratic donors (it is widely reported that the governor prefers working with a GOP controlled senate); (b) distract the press from Albany’s complete failure to pass meaningful ethics reforms; (c) hurt his political foe, Mayor de Blasio.

If the State BOE’s enforcement counsel was someone with no ties to Cuomo or other state political leaders, these questions would not even occur to us, but by her inserting her in that role, the governor has invited questions and undermined an investigation that may have great merit—or may not.


Op-Ed: De Blasio’s ethics rules — and New York City’s: Three ways the city should clean its house so it doesn’t become as corrupt as Albany

new-york-daily-news-logoOriginally published in the NY Daily News on April 27, 2016.

My group keeps an eye on state government, but the scandals erupting in New York City have become impossible to ignore. The new controversies, involving major contributors and lobbyists close to Mayor de Blasio, are particularly disturbing because watchdog groups like ours have long considered New York City government much cleaner than New York State’s.

New York City’s tough campaign finance laws are supposed to make it hard to trade money for political favors. What’s more, they are enforced by an energetic and independent Campaign Finance Board, which oversees a carefully constructed system that combines generous public matching funds with limits on contributions to political candidates, limits that are especially strict for lobbyists and others doing business with the city.

The City Charter also has tough language aimed at stopping self-dealing by city officials. In contrast, the state has laughably weak campaign finance laws, ethics rules and enforcement.

Unfortunately, the new scandals embroiling the mayor suggest it may be possible for an elected official to legally get around the city’s anti-corruption systems and essentially take money in exchange for political favors.

That’s a loud signal that New York’s campaign finance and ethics rules, as strong as they are, must be made stronger.

It is sad that the mayor’s main defense is that his fund-raising shenanigans are legal. De Blasio, who is an idealist with big ideas, can do much better than that. As city councilman and public advocate, de Blasio supported increased transparency and government reform. He knows “legal” does not mean “right.” He knows that the ends do not justify the means, and that at the end of the day, it is the poorest, least powerful and most vulnerable who ultimately lose when dollars are traded for political favors.

These scandals are a defining moment for de Blasio. He needs to dig deep and find the motivation to champion signature reforms — or be seen as just another, transactional, money-driven politician, the kind of creature he says he abhors.

First, the mayor, his team and other city elected officials have to be banned from soliciting funds for any nonprofit — which the city’s conflicts of interest rules currently allow city officials to do. There doesn’t have to be a formal rule; de Blasio could voluntarily impose the restriction.

This will be unpleasant, because such a ban would have to bar raising funds for nonprofits that support city government, like the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City, as well as nonprofits that support city agencies. But until this nonprofit backdoor is closed, city officials, especially the mayor, will have a huge incentive to use nonprofits to get around the limits that keep elected officials from soliciting huge contributions.

Second, lobbying rules have to be strengthened and lobbying enforcement transferred from the city clerk to the Campaign Finance Board. It simply does not work to have lobbying rules enforced by the city clerk, who is a political appointee of the City Council.

A strong lobbying enforcer could step in to preempt problematic conflicts — such as firms working for both the mayor and for clients who want favors from him.

Third, while legally the city cannot stop lobbyists from funneling other donors’ contributions directly to campaigns, an act known as bundling, the Council and mayor can send an immediate signal that such corrosive behavior is unwanted by passing a package of pending bills that, among other things, eliminates public matching funds for bundled donations from anyone doing business with the city.

De Blasio has set out to do big things. His challenge now is to lead big reforms or risk the city degenerating into an Albany-like culture of pay to play and conflict of interest.

Open government groups call on the Senate to pass FOIA reforms during Sunshine Week

Budget Enacting Legislation

Strangely, neither the NY State Senate nor the Assembly have published a list of the legislation enacting the budget. Here is some of the enacting legislation. Please Tweet at @Reinventalbany if you have more links.

Capital Projects (S.6404D, A.9004D)

Education, Labor and Family Assistance (ELFA) (S.6406C, A.9006C)

State Operations (S.6400D, A.9000D)

Transportation, Economic Development and Environmental Conservation (TED) (S.6408C, A.9008C)

Public Protection and General Government (PPGG) (S.6405C, A.9005C)

Legislature and Judiciary Budget Bill (S.6401A, A.9001A)

Debt Budget Bill (Governor’s)

Aid to Localities (S.6403D, A.9003D)

Health and Mental Hygiene (S.6407C, A.9007C)

Revenue (S.6409C, A.9009C)