It is not any political ideology that is the problem in New York, it is the pay-to-play culture combined with the brazen disregard for what few ethical standards the state does have that goes to the heart of the problem.
Taxpayers had a front-row seat to how Albany works this week during the corruption trial of Joseph Percoco, a close confidant and aide of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who also ran his re-election campaign in 2014. Percoco is on trial for taking $300,000 in bribes.
While that relationship with the governor raises many questions about what Gov. Cuomo knew and when he knew it, what was on display this week in Manhattan federal court was how lobbyists, their clients and administration officials maneuver around the state’s ethics and disclosure laws to do business.
The expert witness was Todd Howe, who has already pleaded guilty to eight felonies in the bribery case. Howe testified that he regularly lobbied state officials for clients, even though he was not a registered lobbyist.
Howe described a culture that flouted ethical standards put in place to clean up Albany corruption. Howe said he used his connections with state officials to craft deals without registering with the state as required by law. He acknowledged he thought registering would hurt his business.
Howe also described the way some high-ranking Cuomo officials used personal email accounts to keep business dealings that might raise suspicion secret, so their correspondence would not be flagged in a Freedom of Information request.
Howe also testified about the way corporations curried favor with state government officials by exploiting the “LLC loophole.”
We’ve written about this before.
Many newspapers have written about this before, and multiple good-government groups have called on the Legislature to close a loophole that allows businesses to donate unlimited amounts of money to politicians — legally.
Campaign finance laws cap business contributions at $5,000. While that sounds prudent, the “LLC loophole” makes that standard academic. The law treats “Limited Liability Companies (LLCs)” as individual entities that can donate up to $60,800 at a time in a governor’s race.
Howe testified that he told executives with Cor Development in Syracuse that donations to Cuomo’s campaign could be “helpful” in building stronger relations with officials in the governor’s administration.
That appears to be what happened, with Cor Development donating generously to Gov. Cuomo’s campaign and Howe setting up business meetings between Cor and at least three close Cuomo aides.
When Cuomo was running for re-election in 2013, Howe said he went to a gathering of Cor executives in Syracuse. Howe said Cor had 35 separate LLCs associated with its development business. That night, Cor used the accounts from five of those LLCs to write checks for $25,000 each to Andrew Cuomo’s re-election campaign for a total of $125,000.
Howe said Cor was careful to choose LLCs that did not have “Cor” in their titles because it might draw attention to the fact Cor was involved in a state-funded development deal in Syracuse.
If the state Legislature is going to clean up state government, closing the LLC loophole is about the best place to start.
The one thing that was absolutely clear from Howe’s testimony is that state government is as corrupt and unethical as it has ever been, with some state officials repeatedly ignoring ethical standards, and some state lobbyists allowed to work in the shadows.
And if what Howe testified to this week is true, the lack of ethical standards goes high up in the Cuomo administration.
In July 2015, the Brennan Center of Justice filed suit against the New York State Board of Elections to close the state’s LLC loophole.
In 2016, the state Supreme Court dismissed the case because the statute of limitations had run out on the 1996 statute.
Last summer, the Brennan Center said it would appeal.