Pay to play is still the way

Despite the ethics laws, grandstanding, good-government groups and newspaper editorials, nothing has stopped pay to play in Albany.

Recent example No. 1: A jury convicted Joseph Percoco, a top advisor and close friend to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, of taking bribes in exchange for helping companies do business with the state. Most of the $300,000-plus in bribes came in the form of a “low-show” job for Percoco’s wife. The governor says he didn’t know it was going on, but Percoco was working out of the governor’s office — which may have been illegal since Percoco had switched to running Cuomo’s re-election campaign.

Recent example No. 2: A New York Times investigation shows the governor’s appointed boards, which dole out millions in state funding, are loaded with donors to his campaign.

Despite all this, the state Legislature is not proposing any substantial ethics reforms this year. Maybe they sense that voters, advocates and opinion writers are too worn down with government shenanigans, both state and federal, to put as much pressure on them this year as they have in the past.

Well, yeah — especially since when the crooks get caught, they often manage to weasel their way out of it. Look at New York’s prime examples: Then-Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver orchestrated an ingenious bribery network that paid him millions of dollars, and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos used his power to get his son a no-show job. Both were arrested, tried and found guilty of corruption, but then higher courts overturned their convictions. The defendants didn’t dispute the facts of the case, but they said what they did was legal — business as usual — and the higher court agreed. Thankfully, retrials are coming soon.

In Cuomo’s State of the State speeches, he talks about ethics as if he’s a white knight, but there’s good reason to be skeptical. Recent examples aside, when he started the Moreland Commission a few years ago to root out corruption, it turned out his motive was really to target Silver and Skelos. He disbanded the commission as soon as it started sniffing around his own campaign donors.

He, more than any other governor, has started programs to give tax money to private businesses. There are economic benefits to this — and therefore political benefits — as well as safeguards to ensure no money is given unless the project actually happens, but these programs are also ripe for abuse. That’s especially true since the state comptroller was blocked from auditing many processes of awarding state grants, contracts and tax breaks.

So what can New Yorkers do to improve this?

As we think deeper about the root of the problem, we end up with two deadly sins: greed and pride.

We’ll discuss each of them over the next two days.

The Adirondack Daily Enterprise