With Bharara gone, state Capitol may be weaker on ethics transgressions

Mar 20, 2017

Now that Preet Bharara is no longer the U.S. Attorney for the southern district of New York, some in Albany wonder who will investigate potential corruption now.

Bharara’s office engineered the successful prosecutions of both major party legislative leaders. Former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos face long prison sentences for corruption.

Bharara, fired by President Donald Trump’s Justice Department, also has brought cases against nine former associates of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, including the governor’s former top aide.

Blair Horner with the New York Public Interest Research Group is a veteran of the fits and starts of reform efforts in New York. He said Bharara is a “once-in-a-generation figure,” and his exit will “leave a huge hole in the ethics landscape.”

“It’s always been a desert when it comes to enforcement of ethics and contracting laws at the state level,” Horner said. “We all relied on Preet Bharara to bring actions if people behaved badly.”

Horner said the absence of Bharara “draws the focus back to the weakness” of the state’s ethics laws and review agencies.

Horner said Cuomo and lawmakers could start to take steps to prevent future corruption. He said the state comptroller should regain powers to monitor economic development contracts. The comptroller’s oversight power was written out of the process in a 2011 law.

Cuomo is proposing instead that he be allowed to create a special inspector general within his own administration to monitor economic development projects.

Horner also said the troubled Joint Commission on Public Ethics should be revamped and strengthened to truly probe allegations of corruption. The commission is dominated by the governor’s appointees. The other members are chosen by the state Legislature.

“The state spends millions of dollars for a state ethics watchdog. It should be independent,” Horner said.

Meanwhile, in their one-house budget proposals, the Assembly and Senate are asking for more transparency, at least in relation to some of the governor’s economic development programs, which have been the subjects of Bharara’s probes.

Assembly Democrats want the governor’s Regional Economic Development Councils, which consist of regional business and other leaders, to disclose their personal finances, just like other state government boards. The regional councils hand out about $750 million in economic development grants each year.

The Assembly also wants to set up a public searchable database of all companies awarded contracts with the state.

The Senate Republicans’ budget plan also requires greater disclosure from Cuomo’s Regional Economic Development Councils. And it rejects rebranding the governor’s troubled Start-Up New York tax-free program. Senators are calling instead for a moratorium and more study on whether the program actually works.

Cuomo appeared publicly several times in the days after Bharara’s exit, giving briefings on a major nor’easter that swept the state. Reporters were told to keep on topic in their questions, but Cuomo, appearing on CBS This Morning, was asked in a live segment for a reaction to Bharara’s firing. Cuomo demurred.

“I didn’t follow the situation,” Cuomo said on CBS This Morning. “There’s a transition from one administration to the next. But beyond that, I haven’t followed it.”

The trials of the former Cuomo associates are still scheduled to begin later this year.