Cuomo: limit campaign cash, create watchdogs

ALBANY (USA Today Network)  -- Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Wednesday he will ban his political campaign and the state Democratic Party from accepting contributions from companies as they bid for state contracts.
 
The Democratic governor unveiled the ban as part of a 1,500-word statement outlining a variety of plans and proposals to revamp the state's ethics laws, including the creation of new watchdog positions to oversee the executive branch and the state's higher-education system.
 
In his statement, Cuomo said he will soon appoint a chief procurement officer to review all state contracts and grants in an effort to eliminate "any wrongdoing, conflicts of interest or collusion."
 
He also pledged to appoint separate inspector generals for SUNY and CUNY, who would be tasked with investigating fraud and abuse within the university systems.
 
"I believe this public trust and integrity issue must be addressed – directly and forthrightly," Cuomo wrote. "I don’t believe in denial as a life strategy. I believe you must face your problems, no matter how unpleasant, and do your best to resolve them."
 
Upcoming deadline
 
The lengthy statement came a week before federal prosecutors face a deadline to indict former top Cuomo aide Joseph Percoco and others at the center of a major bid-rigging and bribery scandal, which resulted in wide-ranging criminal charges filed in late September.
 
It also came a day after Cuomo's appointees to a state commission blocked a pay raise for New York's 213 state lawmakers, arguing legislators should do more to bolster ethics laws first.
 
Cuomo's limits on his own campaign donations would apply to all companies who place a bid or request information for a state contract, according to his office.
 
The ban would be in place from the time a formal request for proposals goes out to six months after a contract is awarded, Cuomo said.
 
Campaign contributions were not directly at the center of the complaints filed last month against Percoco, former SUNY Polytechnic Institute President Alain Kaloyeros and a handful of major upstate developers.
 
But U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara noted thousands of dollars went to Cuomo's campaign from the developers at the center of the case, who were allegedly seeking to bolster their relationship with the governor's office.
 
In September, Bharara accused Kaloyeros and lobbyist Todd Howe, a former aide to Cuomo during his days as federal housing secretary, of rigging bids for state-funded contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars. The contracts went to Howe's clients.
 
Percoco was accused of accepting bribes from companies with business before the state. Howe has pleaded guilty, while the others have maintained their innocence.
 
Bharara, meanwhile, faces a Nov. 23 deadline to secure indictments from a grand jury against Percoco, Kaloyeros and the other defendants.
 
The federal prosecutor has won the conviction of a number of state lawmakers, including former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos.
 
New watchdogs
 
Cuomo's plan Wednesday called for the creation of three new watchdogs to oversee state contracts, SUNY and CUNY, respectively.
 
The chief procurement officer, Cuomo wrote, would have the ability to review "any contract or agreement that entails the disbursement of state funds."
 
"The Chief Procurement Officer will have investigative and prosecutorial experience, and will be authorized to refer problematic issues directly to law enforcement for further action," Cuomo wrote.
 
The new watchdog would appear to have overlapping authority with state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, an independently elected official who has the power to review many state contracts and audit state agencies and programs.
 
Cuomo and DiNapoli have publicly feuded in recent years,
 
DiNapoli's office could not immediately be reached for comment.
 
The New York Public Interest Research Group applauded Cuomo's statement, saying he was right to "draw the public's attention to this important issue."
 
But the government-reform group called for more details on Cuomo's contribution ban and pointed to DiNapoli's existing authority.
 
"While we have no objection to the creation of a chief procurement officer, the state constitution already establishes one -- the state comptroller," the group said in a statement.
 
"The governor and legislative leaders should be looking to enhance checks and balances and for ways to restore and strengthen the comptroller's powers to independently oversee government contracts."
 
On to lawmakers
 
The governor also laid out a number of proposals that would require approval from the Legislature, including a strict limit on the amount of private income lawmakers can earn on top of their public salary.
 
The issue came into sharp focus Tuesday, when Cuomo's appointees to the state Commission on Executive,
 
Legislative & Judicial Compensation raised the need for an outside-income limit as they blocked a pay hike for lawmakers, who haven't had a raise since 1999.
 
Senate Republicans, in particular, have pushed back against limiting private income, arguing that lawmakers who work in the private sector bring valuable outside perspective to the legislative process.
 
Cuomo supports capping outside pay of 15 percent of a lawmaker's pay. As it stands, lawmakers receive a base salary of $79,500 a year, though most receive additional stipends for leadership roles.
 
"To end decades of chronic conflicts of interest – both perceived and real – legislators should no longer be allowed to serve two masters," Cuomo wrote.
 
 

 


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