New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who vowed to clean up Albany after decades of graft, called for tougher criminal laws for corrupt officials after the latest arrests of state lawmakers.
Cuomo, a Democrat, made the announcement today at a Manhattan news briefing where he was flanked by local prosecutors. The measures, which Cuomo wants lawmakers to approve by the end of the legislative session in June, would expand the power of the state’s 62 district attorneys to investigate public corruption and increase penalties for crimes such as bribery.
The governor is pushing for the changes, which he said will help state law better match federal statutes, one week after two lawmakers were charged in separate federal corruption cases. A third legislator, who wore a wire as an informant for almost four years, resigned after pleading guilty to a perjury charge.
“There have been too many incidents for too many years,” Cuomo said today. “These laws will empower the district attorneys to bring these kinds of cases all across the state.”
Cuomo, 55, has positioned himself as the sheriff of Albany, saying when he took office in 2011 that he would end the capital’s dysfunction and culture of corruption. He points to the first three consecutive on-time budgets since 1984 as a sign that his plan is working.
On April 2, the day after his most recent budget went into effect, federal authorities arrested a Democratic senator, accusing him of trying to bribe his way onto the Republican New York City mayoral ticket. Two days later, an assemblyman was accused of taking bribes to push legislation, and another who helped prosecutors bust him resigned.
They were the latest to join a growing list. In 2006, Comptroller Alan Hevesi, a Democrat, resigned as part of a plea deal struck after he assigned a state employee to be the chauffer for his ailing wife. In 2010, Hevesi, who as comptroller was the sole trustee of the state’s pension fund, pleaded guilty to approving a $250 million pension investment in exchange for a $1 million kickback.
In August, Assemblyman Vito Lopez, a Brooklyn Democrat, was stripped of his committee chairmanship when an ethics committee determined he sexually harassed two staff members. Days later, Senator Shirley Huntley, a Queens Democrat whose nonprofit has been under state investigation, was indicted on charges of conspiracy, tampering with evidence and falsifying business records. Huntley pleaded guilty in January to U.S. charges that she conspired to commit mail fraud.
Pedro Espada Jr., a Democrat, was convicted last year of embezzling $448,000 from a nonprofit health-care network he founded. The funds were used on lobster dinners, theater tickets and spa treatments, prosecutors said.
Another former Senate majority leader, Joseph Bruno, a Republican, was charged last year by federal prosecutors, accused of taking bribe. He pleaded not guilty. Bruno had a previous conviction on corruption charges thrown out in 2011.
Senator Carl Kruger, a Democrat, was sentenced to seven years in prison last year for taking payoffs.
The bills Cuomo is proposing are the second set he’s backed since taking office. The first package approved by lawmakers in 2011 established a new ethics commission and required greater financial disclosure from public officials, though some of the changes have yet to take effect. The commission has been criticized for its limited authority and inability to make public some its own findings.
The proposed legislation is meant to make it easier for local prosecutors to convict public officials of bribery by requiring that prosecutors prove only that an official intended to be influenced by the graft, similar to the federal provision. Existing law requires proof that there was an explicit agreement between the person paying the bribe and the recipient.
Another measure would, for the first time, make it a misdemeanor for any public official or employee to fail to report bribery. The new group of felonies would allow those convicted of the crimes to be barred from holding elected office, doing business with the state or registering as a lobbyist.
“Under the new class of crimes proposed by the governor, prosecutors will be able to pursue defrauding the government and bribery more aggressively, criminalizing activities that have been wrong but legal for far too long,” said Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, who also heads the state District Attorneys Association.
Cuomo said today he’ll also continue to push for ethics laws, including public financing for campaigns. He also wants to reduce the influence local party leaders have in selecting candidates. Cuomo said in a radio interview yesterday that he also hasn’t ruled out a so-called Moreland Commission, which could use subpoena power to root out corruption at the governor’s direction.
Dean Skelos, the Long Island Republican who co-leads the Senate, didn’t specifically back Cuomo’s proposal, though he said more can be done to go after corruption.
“In light of the charges brought last week by the U.S. Attorney against members of the legislature, we must redouble our efforts to create a government New Yorkers can be proud of,” Skelos said in a statement.