ALBANY — State lawmakers and reform advocates said the time has never been more ripe for sweeping ethics reforms after a close associate of Gov. Andrew Cuomo was convicted Tuesday of bribery.
Cuomo’s political adversaries also argued the governor is responsible for the corruption that has taken place under his watch in connection with state economic-development projects.
Several developers implicated in corruption schemes made hefty contributions to Cuomo’s political campaigns after they interacted with Joseph Percoco, who now awaits a prison sentence after being found guilty by a federal court jury of three felony charges.
Assemblyman Mike Norris, R-Lockport, said the Percoco conviction should propel his legislation to create a database of state procurement contracts so the public has expanded opportunities to comment before they reach the approval stage.
“The result of this trial demonstrates the great need for real sunlight, openness and transparency in the awarding of contracts and requests for proposals in state government,” Norris said.
The Percoco conviction and the trail of evidence that prosecutors used, said Assemblyman Clifford Crouch, R-Bainbridge, will likely fortify the perception by some New Yorkers that Cuomo allowed corruption to seep into his administration.
He said those suspicions are fueled by the donations that developers sent to Cuomo’s campaign.
“There are a lot of people where I am who are talking about this, and they are convinced the governor knew something about it,” Crouch said.
There was testimony that Percoco, while struggling financially to keep pace with payments on an $800,000 mortgage, freely used Cuomo’s offices after he left the state payroll to run the governor’s campaign — a period when he was accused of raking in some $300,000 in bribes from developers with business before the state.
Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro, who has been gaining momentum in his quest to capture the GOP nomination for governor, said the trial raises “disturbing questions” that should be probed by the state Attorney General’s Office.
“Despite all his progressive rhetoric, this trial proved conclusively that, for a price, the rich and powerful get special treatment in the Cuomo administration,” Molinaro said.
The Percoco conviction comes in a month when speculation has intensified that progressive activist Cynthia Nixon, a well-known television actress, will mount a challenge to Cuomo for the Democratic primary nomination.
Molinaro has been using the corruption issue to gain traction in his campaign, and just last month Cuomo saw his favorability rating sag in a poll issued by Siena College.
Albany has had other recent corruption scandals that have not generated major reforms, including the 2015 convictions of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate GOP Leader Dean Skelos.
Laws don’t necessarily stop crooks intent on lining their own pockets, noted Sen. Betty Little, R-Queensbury.
“I think there is a need for more ethical people,” Little said. “Each year, we pass new laws with additional penalties, and yet we still have people who break them. They know what the law is, but they take a chance and do bad things.”
What is needed, she suggested, are rules requiring greater transparency over the income generated by state appointees and elected officials, as well as a new look at campaign contribution limits.
Assemblyman Billy Jones, D-Chateaugay, said the Percoco verdicts serve as a reminder that many of the corruption scandals linked to state government officials grew out of their efforts to earn outside income.
He noted he has opted to accept no outside income and suggested there should be “strict limits” on the ability of elected officials to earn it.
“Every time something like this happens, it deteriorates public trust in us,” Jones said.
Assemblyman Brian Miller, R-New Hartford, questioned whether lawmakers will have the resolve to tighten ethics laws even in the wake of the Percoco trial outcome.
“New York state is the most corrupt in the nation, but certain members of the legislature seem in no hurry to stomp it out,” Miller said.
Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at [email protected]