Andrew Cuomo arrived at the governor’s mansion vowing to clean up politics in Albany. And he delivered during his first year in office, signing the Public Integrity Reform Act of 2011.
While it was imperfect in a number of ways, the legislation did contain quite a few important changes. For example, it required more extensive and more precise financial disclosure by lawmakers, and it stiffened punishment for violations.
But as the events of the last few weeks have made all too clear, the political culture in New York remains anything but clean. The arrests of Sen. Malcolm Smith, past president pro tempore of the state Senate, and Assemblyman Eric A. Stevenson in separate bribery cases are only the two latest examples of alleged (and proven) corruption by Albany lawmakers.
In response, the governor this week unveiled a new measure, the Public Trust Act, designed to help prosecutors crack down on corruption. This act, he said, "recognizes that crimes of public corruption should be treated more seriously than other white-collar crimes because when they break the law, they also break the public trust that the people have placed in government."
The speed with which Mr. Cuomo rolled out this legislation will prompt some to accuse him of political opportunism or grandstanding. He seems to have anticipated this, telling reporters, "Never waste a crisis, as they say."
On the merits, the proposed Public Trust Act appears to have much to commend it. For starters, the legislation would create a new class of public corruption crimes: bribing a public servant, corrupting the government, and failing to report a bribe or a bribe attempt. This would expand the current bribery statute and beef up penalties.
In addition, the new class of crimes would permanently bar anyone convicted of public corruption felonies from holding elected or civil office, serving as a registered lobbyist, doing business with the state, or bidding on or obtaining state contracts.
Like the 2011 act, this new legislation comes with no guarantees. Enforcement will be tough, time-consuming work. Nonetheless, it is a step in the right direction.
Meanwhile, voters can and should do their own part in this effort-by refusing to re-elect anyone who clearly has violated the public trust.
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