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Cloud of corruption hangs over Capitol as state legislature returns

Karen Dewitt
WRVO News (file photo)

The New York state legislature returns for the second half of the legislative session, once again under a cloud of corruption, and with numerous unsettled issues.

The session begins Tuesday, after the spring break, and this time it’s the leader of the Senate who is the focus of a federal corruption probe. State Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos confirmed that he’s the target of an investigation, after The New York Times reported that U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara has convened a grand jury that is looking into some of the senator’s business dealings, as well as those of his son.

Earlier in the year, then-Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver was arrested and charged with running multi-million dollar fraud scheme through manipulation of his connections with two private law firms. Silver was forced to resign.

Blair Horner, with the government reform organization the New York Public Interest Research Group, says the atmosphere at the Capitol is heavy right now.

“It’s almost like Beijing-style ethics pollution in Albany,” said Horner.

Horner, who wants stronger ethics reforms, says if another top lawmaker is arrested, the rest of the session could be thrown into turmoil.

“It’s certainly the case that if the U.S. Attorney’s office brings any action against any more of Albany’s legislative or executive leaders, that could certainly cast a shadow over everything else that’s happening here,” Horner said.

What is left for the legislature to address is a number of items that Gov. Andrew Cuomo initially tied to passage of the budget but were dropped, including raising the minimum wage; the Dream Act, which would provide college aid to children of undocumented immigrants; and an education tax credit sought by the Catholic Church, among others.

In addition, lawmakers face some new issues, including the periodic expiration of New York City’s rent regulations in June, and renewal of the state’s property tax cap, which has been tied through legislation to renewal of the rent laws.

Meanwhile, a key component of the state budget pushed by Cuomo seems to be in jeopardy. Cuomo and lawmakers agreed to a new teacher evaluation system that relies more heavily on standardized tests. But nearly one-fifth of students across New York state opted out of taking the English exams when they were given last week, and more plan to skip the math tests. Both test are administered to third through eighth graders.

The state teachers union encouraged the opt out. New York State United Teacher’s President Karen Magee says the boycott undermines the new system, and predicts Cuomo and lawmakers will have to revisit the issue.

“Something has to be done,” Magee said. “Absolutely.”

Cuomo is on a trade mission to Cuba, where he predicted that business between New York and Cuba will soon “take off."

In a sign that allegiances and the balance of power is shifting, the governor brought the leader of the minority party Senate Democrats, as well as the head of the Independent Democrats with him on the trip to Cuba. Senate Majority Leader Skelos did not go on the trip. Cuomo says he invited Skelos, but the Senate leader did not want to go because of his political opposition to the Cuban government.

Republican senators will meet privately when they return to Albany to decide the next step. Skelos has not yet been charged with any crime.

And, in perhaps a new chapter in the on going corruption scandals, the New York Times isreporting that the current Speaker, Carl Heastie, may have inappropriately benefited financially from his mother’s embezzlement of a social service agency where she worked. According to the report, Heastie held on to a house that a judge had advised him to sell. He later sold it at a profit.

Heastie later released a statement:

“This was the most difficult and painful period for me and for my entire family. It is a travesty that the reporters reached the wrong conclusion. A fair reading of the facts shows that I acted ethically and responsibly. This is the last time I will address questions related to my mother’s life or death. My mother should not be defined solely by her actions in this instance but the totality of her life.”

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.