Update, November 21, 2015, 9:00 a.m.: Due to updates to data in another state, New York’s rank has changed to 31st overall.
First came the Assembly speaker, the powerful Democrat Sheldon Silver, who in January was dragged by federal authorities to a courthouse, black fedora perched on his head, and charged with exploiting his position by accepting millions in bribes and kickbacks.
Then, less than four months later, it was the state Senate leader, Republican Dean Skelos, who federal prosecutors charged with bribery, extortion and fraud connected to his role in two companies and a no-show job he secured for his son. Skelos was the fifth straight Senate leader to be charged with corruption.
And finally, two months after that, the Senate’s second-ranking Republican, Thomas Libous, was convicted of lying to the FBI about a scheme to use his position to get his son a job.
Silver and Skelos remain in office, awaiting resolution of trials, but each relinquished his leadership role. Both men have pleaded not guilty to the charges.
Just another year in Albany.
“We’re talking about a gold medal-winning corruption performance by New York,” said John Kaehny, executive director Reinvent Albany, an advocacy group. “It’s a pretty bleak moment for public governance.”
Beset by corruption, backroom deals and voter scorn, New York received a score of 61, a D-, placing it in 31st place nationwide in the State Integrity Investigation, a data-driven assessment of state government accountability and transparency conducted by the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity. That’s little change from 2012, when the project was first carried out and the state earned a D.
The two scores are not directly comparable, however, due to changes made to improve and update the questions and methodology, such as eliminating the category for redistricting, a process that generally occurs only once every 10 years.
The project also noted a significant “enforcement gap,” which measures the difference between the laws on the books and how well they’re actually implemented.
Decades of corruption have taken their toll in New York, where voter turnout was a paltry 29 percent in the 2014 midterm elections. U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara summed it up when he announced Silver’s arrest at a press conference, telling reporters that the charges “go to the very core of what ails Albany.”
With criminal cases against lawmakers piling up — 11 legislators have resigned since 2013 as a result of allegations of misconduct — Albany has done little to police the business that transpires in its ornate, 19th-century capitol building.
In 2013, Gov. Andrew Cuomo established a high-profile panel, known as the Moreland Commission, to combat Albany’s corrupt culture and prosecute wrongdoers. Eight months later he disbanded the commission, reportedly as it was preparing to issue subpoenas to several state Senate campaigns.
The governor’s decision enraged ethics advocates and led Bharara to collect the commission’s records as he investigated the shutdown.
Bharara, Cuomo and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie — who took the position after Silver stepped down from his leadership post — declined through representatives to answer questions for this article. Sen. John Flanagan, who took over as Senate leader after Skelos’ arrest, did not respond to interview requests.
Weak oversight and a lack of transparency is not limited to the legislative branch; it extends through much of state government, including a Board of Elections hobbled by politics and understaffing and a procurement process that critics say does little to prevent fraud and corruption.
Many of the problems stem more broadly from what Kaehny called “the black box that is New York state government”: a lack of transparency that leaves the public – and even many legislators – in the dark about how the government works.
A prime example is New York’s mysterious, compressed budget process. The governor and legislative leaders make key budget decisions behind closed doors — a system that’s become known as “three men in a room” — which allows neither the public nor most lawmakers to provide meaningful input. Lawmakers often rush budget bills through the voting process using emergency legislation.
The final budget is virtually impossible for the general public to navigate, a labyrinthine book of numbers that gives little insight into the negotiations that led to it.
“When did 20 million New Yorkers agree to be ruled like a triumvirate in Roman times?” Bharara said at an event shortly after Silver’s arrest.
Critics say some problems could be solved by giving New York a full-time Legislature. The Assembly and Senate meet for only a portion of a few months per year, which some say hinders both the budget process and deliberation over thousands of other bills.
New York’s part-time Legislature is based on an agrarian model that’s outdated in this highly urbanized state, said Democratic Assemblyman Charles Lavine, chairman of the Assembly Ethics and Guidance Committee. Lawmakers no longer need the summer to tend to crops, Lavine said, and full-time legislating would allow for more transparency and accountability.
“We have at any given time 11,000 bills that have been introduced in the Assembly,” Lavine said. “There is no way to give a fair share of attention to all those bills.”
Before its demise, the Moreland Commission had harsh words about New York’s ineffective Board of Elections, which was designed to enforce election and campaign finance laws. In a preliminary 2013 report — its only publication — the panel cited “inexcusable delays” in election enforcement and said the board rarely initiated investigations.
Those problems and others, such as an even bipartisan split among board members that routinely stymies action, led the state to earn a paltry score of 39, the second worst in the nation, in the category of Electoral Oversight. The state scored a 62 — a D- — in the separate but related category of Political Finance.
There is, however, evidence of slight improvement. Last year, Cuomo hired an enforcement chief, Risa Sugarman, who has since filed lawsuits and recommended criminal investigations of those suspected of breaking campaign finance laws.
“People can look at what we’ve done in the past year and see it’s 100 percent better than it was,” Sugarman said in an interview.
There’s still plenty of room for improvement, though. New York’s campaign finance laws are among the nation’s loosest, allowing individuals to donate up to $65,100 to statewide candidates. Real estate developers routinely skirt that limit by funneling donations through limited-liability companies, or LLCs, effectively allowing them to give unlimited sums.
This summer, Sugarman sued a former candidate for accepting LLC donations beyond what the current vague law allows an individual to give. If the court agrees, it could dramatically reform New York politics by closing the LLC loophole.
Overall, however, Albany observers say the status quo — a lack of transparency and enforcement — is likely to continue.
“The lack of transparency gives [political leaders] more power,” Kaehny said. “There is zero momentum for real reforms. Zero.”