June 17, 2013Gov. Andrew Cuomo has unveiled the legislation for his Public Trust Act, a comprehensive reform package aimed at curbing corruption in New York state politics and restoring the public's faith in government.
The new bill comes following a number of political scandals that have dominated New York state politics, tarnishing the reputation of not only those involved in the controversy, but the entire Legislature.
"We've had a setback over the last few months. There have been a number of cases, a number of charges, that really has shaken the public's trust in government once again," Cuomo said. "Now if you go case by case and argue that this was an unrelated act by the legislator, it had nothing to do with government; argue the merits of the cases but it doesn't matter. We had a series of cases that have gone on for weeks and weeks, and the cumulative effect has been to give the people of this state the feeling that you can't trust the government."
The Public Trust Act is comprised of three major points dealing with fighting public corruption, voting reform and campaign finance reform, all aimed at strengthening the ability to combat the corruption that has seamlessly turned the public against state government, as evidenced by recent polling and media reports.
Under the proposed act, district attorneys would now have increased ability to prosecute officials for violating a number of laws, including the ability to be able to bring action against those who are found to have the intention of committing bribery, instead of needing proof of an actual bribe.
The bill would also allow those private individuals who conspire with elected officials to commit an act against the government, to be prosecuted for defrauding the government. Those found guilty of committing fraud against the government would now be subject to up to 25 years in prison and a lifetime ban from ever being able to work for the state, as an elected official, lobbyist, or in any other context.
The governor's public trust bill also increases the accountability of lawmakers who remain silent and fail to report their knowledge of corruption. The new law would now make it a misdemeanor for those who have information about possible corruption in the government but do not report bribery or fraud.
"We cannot truly change the culture of corruption unless we enlist everyone to become part of the solution…" said Jeremy Creelan, Cuomo's special counsel for public integrity and ethics reform.
The new Public Trust Act also aims to make sweeping voter reforms for New York state, which ranks 47th in voter registration in the nation, with just 64 percent of eligible citizens registered to vote. The governor hopes to increase the number of young voters — currently far behind other age groups in registration — by allowing 16 and 17 year-olds to "pre-register" to vote.
Those who opt to register early will be automatically registered at 18. The bill would also allow voter registration to remain open up until 10 ten days before an election in an attempt to improve voter turnout in the state. New York ranks 44th in the nation for voter turnout, with just 54 percent of registered voters turning out to the polls in the last election. Based on these numbers, the percentage of active voters in New York state is just over 30 percent.
Perhaps the most controversial piece of the Public Trust Act is campaign finance reform, long lobbied for by Democrats, and steadfastly opposed by many Republicans. The proposed legislation would strengthen weak campaign laws and help keep special interest donors out of elections. The bill will attempt to improve on New York state's last-place national ranking for public funds in campaigns by implementing a system similar to that in New York City, matching contributions up to $175 by 6-to-1 with public money.
The bill would also create the nation's toughest laws on funding, requiring political advertisements that "expressly advocates for election or defeat of a candidate" to fully disclose who is paying for campaigns and ads.
Another major point of the Public Trust Act is lowering contribution limits to campaigns. Under the new law, contributions to political parties would be limited to $25,000; party committees would only be authorized to transfer up to $500 to candidates per contributor; and corporations would be limited to just $1,000. Further closing contribution loopholes, limited liability corporations would be treated as corporations instead of as individual contributors.
Cuomo's anti-corruption bill has received unanimous, bi-partisan support from all 62 members of the District Attorneys Association of the State of New York. Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, the president of the association, said that for decades prosecutors have had their hands tied while trying to fight political corruption and it would be easier to prosecute an athlete for throwing a game than a politician who accepted a bribe.
"We're here to ask our lawmakers to get serious about enacting real change in public corruption this session," Vance said. "If a bi-partisan group of 62 District Attorneys from around the state can agree on an act, we certainly hope the Legislature can engage in the same bi-partisan support and support this reform."
William Fitzpatrick, the Onondaga District Attorney, whose political relationship with the governor dates back to when Cuomo was first elected attorney general, referenced the infamous Watergate scandal of the mid 70s to the current corruption scandals in New York state government.
"I hate to say it but right now there is a cancer on the state Legislature," Fitzpatrick said. "I would hope that because of their commitment to public service that they recognize that now is the time that something has to be done."
Barbara Bartoletti, the legislative director for the League of Women Voters of New York State, said the organization supported the governor's proposal to increase penalties for political crimes but warned that if the bill was not passed, the scandal-ridden session would be permanently engrained in the history of New York state government.
"This is an issue they [the Legislature] need to act on before the session ends and this becomes known as the session of scandals," Bartoletti said. "There must be comprehensive reform before next week which I think they have time to do."
With the end of the session looming, Cuomo is confident the bill will be passed before legislators return home for the summer.
"We've established [government] competence; I want to make sure we're advancing trust. This initiative or Moreland Commission will advance the public's trust. One way or another, we will get this done by the end of next week," Cuomo said.