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Cuomo's pledge to clean up Albany unfulfilled


The criminal charges against nine of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s associates is the latest incident in a wave of corruption that has enveloped the state Capitol for the past several years.

When Cuomo first became governor in 2011, he promised to do something about it. So far, he has not been particularly successful.

Cuomo, in his inaugural speech as governor on Jan. 1, 2011, promised that corruption at the Capitol would end and public trust would be restored during his tenure in office.

“We have lost the trust,” Cuomo said. “And we’re not going to get it back until we’ve cleaned up Albany, and there’s real transparency.”

At the time, two former Senate leaders and a former state comptroller had been convicted of fraud and bribery, and a number of rank-and-file lawmakers had been convicted of corruption, and, in one case, assaulting a girlfriend.

Since the governor’s term began, things have only gotten worse. Another Senate leader, Dean Skelos, and the former speaker of the Assembly, Sheldon Silver, were convicted of masterminding schemes that defrauded taxpayers of millions of dollars and sentenced to lengthy prison terms.

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara looked into Cuomo’s handling of a Moreland Act Commission that was supposed to investigate the Legislature, and found no wrongdoing in that instance.

But the governor’s office had never been implicated until the criminal complaint was issued Thursday against longtime former Cuomo associates Joe Percoco, Todd Howe, SUNY Polytechnic Institute leader Alain Kaloyeros and six others.

Cuomo, appearing at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo one day after the charges were made public, addressed the issue head-on. He said the allegations against his “longtime friend” and former close aide Joe Percoco is “sad” and “truly disappointing.” He said Percoco started working for his father, the late former Gov. Mario Cuomo, when Percoco was just 19.

“It’s the first time since we lost my father that I didn’t miss him being here yesterday because it would have broken his heart,” Cuomo said.

Cuomo said he will cooperate with the U.S. attorney to make sure wrongdoers are punished severely.

The governor regarded the incident as the failings of a few individuals, not an indictment of the system. And he announced that the upstate economic development projects headed by Kaloyeros — who has been suspended without pay — will continue under Empire State Development Chair Howard Zemsky. He said Zemsky will take steps to ensure that there is no more corruption.

Blair Horner, with the New York Public Interest Research Group and a longtime reform advocate, said it’s the system that needs to be fixed.

He said some of the governor’s top aides and allies viewed the economic development and energy policies “as a gold rush, where they were supposed to make themselves wealthy.”

Horner said more transparency about the bidding process would prevent a few insiders from gaming the process.

“It’s the culture of secrecy,” Horner said. “Basically the governor has an honor system with a very small number of top aides.”

Cuomo, despite his pledge when he began as governor, has not achieved any big changes in ethics reform. He set up a new ethics commission, which has been widely criticized as flawed and secretive. He has proposed public campaign financing several times but has not been able to convince the Legislature to pass it.

Horner said it’s time for Cuomo to try again.

“It should move ethics to the governor’s No. 1 priority for next year,” he said.

But the governor, with a stain now on his own administration, will be in a weakened position to seek any changes.

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.