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Reform groups say Cuomo's plan to empower DAs is a good first step

Government reform groups say they are pleased that Gov. Andrew Cuomo has now proposed step one in his plan to clean up corruption in state government, following two high profile arrests of state lawmakers.
Barbara Bartoletti, with the League of Women Voters of New York State, says the governor’s proposal to give the state’s district attorneys more power to investigate and prosecute bribery cases, is a good first step toward systematic reform.

“These are what we would call the low hanging fruit,” said Bartoletti. “This is what he can do fairly quickly, and probably get bi partisan support in the legislature.”

Up until now, there has been little appetite among state lawmakers to strengthen New York’s notoriously lax laws against public corruption.

The majority of the corruption cases brought against state lawmakers have been initiated by federal prosecutors, largely due to the federal theft of honest services statute. The two most recent cases brought by the U.S. attorney involve former New York State Senate Leader Malcolm Smith, who is accused of trying to bribe his way onto the New York City mayoral ticket, and Assemblyman Eric Stevenson, who is charged with accepting bribes in exchange for writing a bill to benefit the owners of an adult day care center, among other things. U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara called the cases examples of a “show me the money” culture in Albany.

Bartoletti, of the League of Women Voters, says the arrests of the state legislators may finally motivate lawmakers who aren’t corrupt to stand up and take action before they are further tainted by the scandals.

“I’ve heard some of them say it, ‘they think we’re all crooks,’” Bartoletti said. “They have to redeem themselves and the institution.”

Karen Scharff, with Citizen Action, is part of the Fair Elections for New York Campaign, which advocates for public funding of political campaigns. She says she hopes the governor takes the next step and follows through with plans to over haul the state’s campaign finance system.

Scharff says while the proposed reforms may not curb abuses by the current crop of politicians, it will attract a different sort of candidate, and representative, over time. She says currently, a candidate who wants to run for office has to immediately go out and raise money form “wealthy people who want something from you.”

“From day one, you’re stuck in this pay to play system,” she said.  “We have to change that first, if we want to do anything to change the ‘show me the money culture’ that the U.S. Attorney is talking about.”

Cuomo has already said campaign finance reform is a top priority for the second part of the legislative session, and says now that his planned reform package could be widened.

“I think given the recent events we can put together a more robust package,” Cuomo said.

The governor says he also wants to look at ending the practice of party cross endorsements. Sen. Smith, a Democrat, was seeking the required permission of three of the New York City’s five Republican borough political chairs, in order to run on the GOP ballot for mayor. Smith is accused of paying tens of thousands of dollars in bribes to the former Bronx chair and the Queens vice-chair.      

And there’s also the chance that the state ethics commission, created by Cuomo and the legislature in 2011, which had somewhat of a rocky start, could be revisited for improvements.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.