Budget talks begin, amid greater scrutiny of ethics and the '3 men in a room' private talks
Budget talks began Wednesday, as Gov. Andrew Cuomo met behind closed doors with legislative leaders to discuss school aid, economic development proposals and ethics reform. Cuomo’s push to reform practices in the legislature comes at a time when his nearly $1 million book deal is coming under closer scrutiny.
Cuomo says he’s continuing to push for a package of ethics reforms that will require legislators to fully disclose their outside income, curb abuses of their daily expense accounts, and end pensions for lawmakers convicted of crimes. Cuomo says he’s telling lawmakers “if you don’t accomplish this, I’m not going to sign the budget.”
“You cannot do or say more than that,” Cuomo said.
The governor spoke at a cabinet meeting that focused on women’s rights, including preventing sexual assault on college campuses.
Cuomo is not proposing any changes to the executive branch, like banning income from speaking engagements or book deals. The governor does not give paid speeches, but has written a book and has been paid $700,000 so far for the autobiography, which has sold just 3,000 copies.
The arrangement has come under scrutiny, with a report in the International Business Times that says Cuomo signed legislation favorable to Newscorp, which owns the publishing house that published Cuomo's book, as well as Fox News, shortly before he signed the book contract.
Some states and Congress forbid elected officials from receiving advance fees for books from publishers, to avoid an appearance of a conflict of interest. The governor says he didn’t even know that Newscorp, owned by Rupert Murdoch, was lobbying for the bills he signed.
Cuomo has not made public the financial details of his book contract. He says he will reveal his earnings from the book in an end of the year report, as required by ethics rules.
“Just hang around next year, and you’ll see the other payment,” Cuomo told reporters.
The govenror then met with legislative leaders in a private meeting. Afterward, Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos says while he expects lawmakers to agree with some of Cuomo’s proposed changes on income disclosure, he wants to see them applied to the governor’s office, as well.
“Certainly I think there’s going to be robust changes to requirements of legislators in terms of disclosure,” said Skelos. “But I think there should be also disclosure by the executive branch.”
The Senate leader points out that former state Comptroller Alan Hevesi went to prison after a fraud conviction, former Gov. Eliot Spitzer resigned in a sex scandal, and former Gov. David Paterson was accused of misleading an ethics panel about World Series tickets and of inappropriately involving himself in a top aide’s domestic violence situation.
“There’ve been problems in all branches of government,” Skelos said.
Skelos, who makes over $100,000 a year in income from a private law firm, declined to name his clients, but says greater disclosure of law clients is part of the budget talks.
The very structure of the budget talks also came under criticism. The traditional "three men in a room," which has been denounced by reform groups and the U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, was expanded to four men in the private meeting. Senate Independent Democratic Leader Jeff Klein, whose group represents five senators, was also included.
Klein says he was invited in to the meetings because in the past, when he and Skelos were briefly co-leaders of the Senate, they were a very productive team.
“We got real results for New Yorkers and we want to keep that going,” Klein said.
Cuomo also defended the arrangement.
“It’s up to the legislature who they want to invite, how they want to conduct the process,” Cuomo said.
But Senate Democratic Leader Stewart-Cousins, who represents 25 senators and is the only female legislative leader, was not invited to the leader’s meetings, and was incensed by the development.
In a statement she said she “had been led to believe” that attendance at the closed-door meetings was “based on constitutional roles and not simply the whims of the governor.” She said cleaning up Albany by getting rid of the closed door meetings would be “a perfect place to start.”