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An insider for elections

Albany Times-Union

THE ISSUE:

An insider slides into the top election law enforcement post.

THE STAKES:

New York doesn’t need another watchdog without teeth.

It is only human to hope that someone entering a new job does well — especially when the job in question is important to the functioning of our democracy. But in the case of Michael L. Johnson, the new-minted chief enforcement counsel at the state Board of Elections, we’re sorry to say we have a few concerns.

Quietly nominated by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, Mr. Johnson easily cleared the hurdles of confirmation in the final days of the 2021 session. His appearances before the Assembly Election Law Committee and Senate Finance Committee were sleepy verging on comatose; he faced precisely zero probing questions from lawmakers. In the Senate meeting, the only lawmaker to even address the nominee at any length was Sen. Diane Savino, who instead of using the time to, say, ask Mr. Johnson how he would enforce campaign finance laws, took the opportunity to excoriate the former enforcement counsel, Risa Sugarman.

Sen. Savino, it’s worth noting, is a former member of the chamber’s Independent Democratic Conference, which ran afoul of Ms. Sugarman and campaign finance law after it began collecting “housekeeping” cash in league with the state Independence Party. That case was one of several in which Ms. Sugarman displayed a willingness to go after powerful pols — not that her tenure was as robust as it could have been, considering the free-fire zone of straw donors, late filers and other bad actors gaming New York’s system. She also faced abundant criticism from inside and outside the board that her unit failed to clamp down on small-bore violations in order to focus on high-profile cases.

Staff and commissioners of the Board of Elections viewed Ms. Sugarman as an interloper whose presence was a reminder of the criticism served up to them in 2014 by the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption. That panel ruthlessly anatomized how the board tended to “do the basement” — as little as possible, that is — in terms of enforcement.

Mr. Johnson worked for the board in an enforcement role in 2005 and 2006, a period not celebrated as a golden age of election law compliance. Since then, he has held a series of jobs that made him a political insider, including more than a decade as counsel to the late Assemblyman Denny Farrell. More recently, he worked as an attorney and diversity officer at the state Dormitory Authority.

As evidenced by the near-total silence from the lawmakers (even the Republicans who tacitly opposed his nomination) who encountered him in last week’s committee meetings, there is almost nothing in Mr. Johnson’s resume to give powerful politicians worry that he will be the sort of strong watchdog that — based on decades if not centuries of evidence — New York sorely needs.

If we harbor doubts that Mr. Johnson was selected for anything other than being simpatico with the governor and the lawmakers who needed to approve his nomination, we will be overjoyed to be proven wrong. We long to see Mr. Johnson enforcing campaign finance and election law without fear or favor, mindful of the notion that whoever his political patrons used to be, he works for the people now.

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