The dog days are over/The dog days are done
The horses are coming/So you better run.
The unseemly events involving Vito Lopez, Naomi Rivera and Shirley Huntley have exposed allegations of ongoing sexual misconduct, nepotism, and the abuse of member-item and state funding to nonprofits allied with legislators. Those abuses have set the stage for a new round of reforms, possibly more sweeping than past efforts.
Many lawmakers have already been forced from office or drummed out by voters because of their misdeeds. Several of these disgraced ex-legislators also had ties to nonprofits that they controlled, squeezed kickbacks from or otherwise looted.
As Attorney General, Andrew Cuomo had his Charities Bureau staff flag nonprofits that were earmarked for state grants but had not filed their annual paperwork with his office.
Cuomo also had his lawyers comb through campaign finance filings to identify nonprofits that made illegal political contributions. In one instance, when I was in the Assembly, my campaign committee mistakenly accepted a donation from a nonprofit social service organization and refunded the contribution when notified. I felt bad for the agency’s CEO, who got spooked by the AG’s letter.
In response, I offered legislation requiring that political campaign donor forms explicitly state that “contributions from nonprofit corporations are prohibited.” The bill was not adopted.
While member items and state grants enable lawmakers to assist worthwhile local organizations, some bad actors abuse the process to line their pockets or those of their relatives. So serious and widespread is this abuse that, in the name of public integrity, member items must be eliminated once and for all.
It’s naive, however, to think that the Legislature will cede the member item cash to Gov. Cuomo.
Instead, the Legislature should emulate Cuomo’s regional economic council model by establishing a similar mechanism for making grants to community-based nonprofits performing important local services.
But there’s another illicit relationship in Albany that needs scrutiny too.
Entities that double as lobbying firms and political consultants are a significant and troubling part of the “pay-to-play” problem afflicting lawmaking and governance. There is currently no wall separating a lobbyist’s role as a political consultant and an intermediary for clients seeking government favors.
Campaign consultants who run candidates in the fall often change hats and come to lobby their clients that very winter for the spring legislative session. For instance, since 2002 Mirram Global made $2.2 million from political candidates and then amassed millions more lobbying those same now-elected officials. I’m sure the figures are similar for many other firms.
In 2009 I introduced legislation requiring lobbyists and lobbying firms who also function as campaign/political consultants to disclose their political clients. The bill also had a look-back period covering 24 months and reduced the maximum amount that political consulting/lobbying businesses could contribute to a political candidate to $2,500. Regrettably, I failed to build support for the measure.
True transparency requires that lobbyists who use their political relationships to assist their commercial clients make public these potential conflicts.
Were these outfits to spin off into separate business entities, all campaign consultants should be required to register with the State Board of Elections and JCOPE. New financial disclosure rules should require reporting from all entities that bundle contributions and limit the yearly aggregate amounts that may be bundled.
Voters need accessible information that exposes the relationships that often exist between lobbying firms, political consultants, candidates and officeholders.
Lastly, I still favor pay raises to reward and attract honest legislators. Continuous reforms are needed to rid politics of the rot that poisons the public well. We must do everything possible to deter nefarious dealings, and to attract better and committed talent.
We must end the abusive influence of money and relationships in Albany.
Like Florence + the Machine’s song asks, we say to Albany lawmakers:
Can you hear the horses?
’Cause here they come.
Retired Assemblyman Michael Benjamin represented the Bronx for eight years.