“New York is taking aggressive action to restore the people’s faith in government and increase accountability and transparency in the electoral process,’’ Governor Andrew Cuomo said last month as he signed the latest in a long line of anemic ethics bills produced by Albany. The New York State legislature is one of the least accountable, most opaque lawmaking bodies in America. It could be the most corrupt, too, but that’s a distinction without a major difference, given that the former Assembly speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate majority leader Dean Skelos are both on their way to federal prison after being convicted last year on an astonishing variety of official-misconduct charges.
Meanwhile, the Cuomo administration itself remains the subject of wide-ranging investigations by U.S. attorney Preet Bharara—who won the 2015 convictions against Silver and Skelos, and who also has New York City mayor Bill de Blasio under intense scrutiny. All in all, it fairly can be said that the business of New York is monkey business.
If Cuomo was even half as artful in reforming Albany’s rules as he is in skirting them, Albany would’ve been cleaned up long ago. The 58-year-old governor has been navigating the capital city’s legal shoals since he came to town with his father, former governor Mario Cuomo, at the age of 25. That is, Andrew not only knows where the bodies are buried, he’s planted a few (metaphorically speaking, of course.)
Cuomo, who once said “[t]he power of money in the Capitol is unbelievable” shortly before stepping into a fundraiser, is one of Albany’s most accomplished money magnets: there’s more than $19 million in his campaign accounts—and the dough is rolling in at the rate of $660,000 a month, more than two years before the next gubernatorial election. (Several big-ticket donors to Cuomo’s earlier campaigns are now the subject of Bharara’s attentions, and appear to be sitting this cycle out, which could tamp down the total take. Time will tell.)
Quite apart from traditional fundraising, the governor also is a masterful mixer of policy, politics, self-promotion, and large sums of special-interest cash—a fact brilliantly illustrated in a filing posted this month on an oversight website by Service Employees International Union Local 1199. (With 150,000 members, the labor behemoth has long been the most politically potent union in New York.) The filing, with the state Joint Commission on Public Ethics, reveals that Cuomo’s ultra-high-profile vehicle for promoting the recent increase in New York’s minimum wage—the Mario Cuomo Campaign for Economic Justice—was almost totally funded by Local 1199 or other SEIU affiliates. They kicked in more than 90 percent of the $1.7 million spent to push for a $15 minimum wage. The effort was successful in passing what is arguably the largest tax-increase-by-another-name in New York history, and in handing Cuomo a formidable campaign plank should he seek a third term in 2018.
None of this appears to be illegal; even so, it certainly underscores “the power of money in the Capitol” and does nothing to “restore the people’s faith in government.” It also dramatically shows Cuomo’s talent for talking reform while practicing politics. Indeed, so hand-in-glove was the relationship between Local 1199 and the governor that the union-funded campaign is featured on Cuomo’s official state website to this day.
Bharara has zeroed in on Local 1199’s relationship with the de Blasio administration, subpoenaing records relating to the union’s contributions to the mayor’s now-defunct Campaign for One New York, a political-action entity that structurally had a lot in common with Cuomo’s minimum-wage vehicle. Whether the prosecutor is preparing to move on the governor is anybody’s guess. But who can deny that—politically speaking—Andrew Cuomo has been keeping some gamy company of late?
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