Many are calling the recent spate of political scandals a sign that it’s still business as usual in Albany. I see signs of change.
First. the indictment against Senator Shirley Huntley comes after a joint investigation by State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Comptroller Tom DiNapoli into a family-run nonprofit to which she funneled state grants.
For the first time in recent memory, a state AG is prosecuting an incumbent state legislator. All of the previous corruption cases were brought by federal prosecutors.
Second, Assemblyman Vito Lopez’s censure and demotion also demonstrates the Assembly’s zero tolerance for sexual misconduct.
The two months long investigation of the allegations against Lopez resulted in a unanimous bipartisan recommendation that stripped away his committee chairmanship and other perks.
Another Lopez accuser, however, took a different route and reached a $103,000 settlement. The secrecy of that settlement deal has properly raised transparency concerns.
I believe the settlement was proper but should have been reported to the Ethics Committee (after redacting the complainant’s identifying information). Since Assemblyman Lopez was aware of the settlement, its introduction to the Ethics Committee was relevant, if not vital, to its investigation of the allegations against Mr. Lopez. And because taxpayer funds were expended, the disbursement should have been made public.
I can tell you from experience the most important thing to Speaker Silver is the institution that is the Assembly. Members come in a distant second whenever their conduct brings disrepute to the Chamber. Speaker Silver has been chastened by the errors made earlier in the decade.
The new reforms and zero tolerance for official misconduct are taking root. And the member-item spigot has been shut off.
In the Lopez matter, the Assembly’s internal process worked as designed. The Ethics Committee conducted its work thoroughly and professionally.
Annually, every Member, Capitol and district office staff must take mandatory training on sexual harassment and ethics.
If some Members choose to ignore the lessons imparted that’s on them and that should not detract from the worthiness of the program.
We are now left pondering what to do next about cleaning up Albany.
Clearly, more can and must be done to establish a culture of zero tolerance for wrongdoing, official misconduct and misuse of taxpayer funds.
Cuomo and Schneiderman must push whistleblower immunity legislation to encourage people to come forward with credible information about official misconduct. And they should establish a compensation fund for those whistleblowers whose honesty renders them unemployable because they broke the code of silence.
The allegations of nepotism, malfeasance, harassment and intimidation against Assemblywoman Naomi Rivera as chronicled in the Post showcases the need for whistle-blower protections.
Such protections are one way to permanently break the back of political corruption. If we are serious about public integrity, we must offer protection to those whistle-blowers.
The censure of Lopez, the indictment of Huntley and the army of investigators looking at Assemblywoman Rivera are proof-positive that the system is willing to expose and punish transgressors.
Those still operating in the shadows should panic. Their day of reckoning is coming.
And the public should be cheering.
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