One of the best ways to prevent corruption in government operations is to increase transparency, and two bills now before the state Legislature would do that, particularly in regard to economic development spending.
The bills are timely, because of the recent conviction for bribery of Joseph Percoco in connection with money and favors he received from developers seeking state business. Percoco is a longtime friend of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s and was for years his closest adviser.
Percoco joins the exceptionally long list of high public officials from New York who have been convicted of crimes tied to dishonest execution of their duties. This is a state tradition we would love to see abandoned.
Experience has taught us, however, that people — especially powerful people — will do as they please, unless pressure is applied. Opening these development deals to public inspection will put pressure on the people involved to conduct themselves legally and properly.
The bills have been proposed by Reinvent Albany, a nonprofit organization that advocates for transparency and accountability in state operations.
The first one would list subsidies awarded to businesses or organizations for economic development. This “database of deals” would show the amount of the state subsidies, the number of jobs created and the public cost per job and would create uniform definitions of a “job” that would apply to all subsidy programs.
The second would make all entities that administer public economic development benefits subject to the state’s Freedom of Information Law and Open Meetings Law. It would also require board members for all such entities to report personal financial information and follow the ethics rules in the state Public Officers Law.
We have seen recently in Warren County how muddy the situation can get with organizations, such as the Lake Champlain Lake George Regional Planning Board, that receive public funding and fund private businesses — in this case, with low-interest loans — but operate largely without public scrutiny.
We do not yet know the details of the Regional Planning Board’s operation, but from what we have learned, it appears that its officers did not do enough to avoid conflicts of interest.
In the case of Percoco and others inside and outside state government, headlines of the past year have revealed people who have taken advantage of state contracts to go well beyond conflicts of interest to outright bribery.
We are fortunate to live in a state that has strong public information laws. The problem, frequently, arises in enforcement of these laws and also the ability of private citizens to take full advantage of them.
To help make public records requests convenient, another bill has been introduced in the Legislature that would require all state agencies to include on their websites online records request forms.
Not everyone knows the proper language for a freedom of information request; and not everyone knows where to send such a request. An online form, which some state agencies already provide, will simplify the process, removing one more obstacle to public information.
Ideally, state agencies will post documents on their websites where the public can find them, without the intervening step of a records request. Ideally, all the public information we pay state agencies to compile would be easily available on their websites.
But we don’t live in an ideal world, and despite its clear duty to keep citizens informed, the state often acts to hide information rather than share it. As long as New York’s public officials are getting convicted of corruption, we need to continue to update and strengthen our public information laws.