New York State

Biaggi looks to revive state Senate Ethics Committee

The freshman will chair the moribund committee and actually hold hearings.

Alessandra Biaggi

Alessandra Biaggi Alessandra Biaggi for NY State Senate

Under Republican control, the state Senate Ethics and Internal Governance Committee – which could not be abolished, thanks to state law – stood on the sidelines while a stream of embarrassing scandals plagued the state Legislature. Over nine years, the committee convened just two times: once for a 2009 hearing and the other in 2017.

“This is a committee that’s basically moribund,” said John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany, a government watchdog group. “It’s been doing nothing.”

With Democrats having retaken control of the upper chamber, good-government advocates are hopeful that the ethics committee will be reinvigorated by its new chairwoman, state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, a freshman who represents parts of the Bronx and Westchester County.

Biaggi, who knocked off state Sen. Jeff Klein in the Democratic primary in part by criticizing Klein over alleged transgressions that included a sexual misconduct accusation by a former staffer, is trying to send the message that she will assert her committee’s power, having told City & State that “anything is possible with this committee.”

Among the first orders of business is tackling workplace harassment, where Albany is no exception to the snowballing revelations rocking high-profile industries like entertainment and journalism. The sexual misconduct claim against Klein is part of a troubled history of powerful New York political figures accused of inappropriate sexual behavior, including former state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman in 2018, former Assemblyman Vito Lopez in 2013 and former Assemblyman Steve McLaughlin in 2017.

Reforms to how Albany handles sexual harassment accusations have often been sporadic and seemingly half-hearted. In March, changes were discussed among the “four men in a room” – Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, then-state Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan and Klein, who led the now-defunct Independent Democratic Conference – with very little input from female leaders. After public criticism, then-state Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins was merely “included” in the discussions, but the legislation produced remained inadequate in the eyes of many women’s rights and workers’ rights advocates.

Biaggi thinks that the first step to reform is holding hearings to shine a light on the problem. “In New York City, hearings were held and there’s no reason why New York state should be on a different playing field here,” said Biaggi, referring to a hearing the city held in February. “We should be a leader and a model employer for the rest of the state, and holding hearings is one of the ways we can do that.”

Sexual harassment is just one subject on which Biaggi may hold hearings with the potential to embarrass her colleagues and make enemies. For some, the ethics committee post is comparable to political suicide. For others, it may just be an unappealing backwater.

But Biaggi’s political incentives may differ from those of most past state senators: She won by running as an insurgent, progressive reformer. Burnishing those credentials may give her a brighter future.

Her election was just one of many state Senate races in 2018 that suggested the status quo of New York state politics has been disrupted. Biaggi was one of six challengers who knocked off former members of the IDC. Likewise, a host of Republicans lost, including several on Long Island. Among them was the committee’s previous chairwoman, state Sen. Elaine Phillips, who lost her re-election bid to Democrat Anna Kaplan. Going forward, an elected official might have as much reason to care about her constituents or the preference of her party’s activist base as her relationships with colleagues, lobbyists or other insiders.

Biaggi may also have a desire to restore her family name: Her grandfather, the late Rep. Mario Biaggi, also from the Bronx, went to prison in the late 1980s for taking an illegal gratuity and extorting stock.

“(The ethics committee) has to exist because there has to be a moral compass for every legislative body, and when there isn’t a (moral) compass I think that what we see is lots of problems as it relates to the Legislature, and I think that the past 10 years has proven that Albany’s Legislature is just really in need of an ethics overhaul,” Biaggi said.

During the nine years of Republican control and only two meetings, leaders of the legislative houses, former Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Republican Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, were convicted in separate corruption scandals. In between investigations, former state senator and, ironically, former Senate Ethics Committee Chairman John Sampson was sentenced to five years in prison in 2017 after lying to federal investigators in a case where he embezzled $400,000 in state funds, and in 2018 former Assemblywoman Pamela Harris of Brooklyn pleaded guilty to wire fraud and other crimes and was sentenced to six months in prison.

Though listed as a standing committee, much of the committee’s powers were stripped in the past decade thanks to Senate rules drafted by Republicans as the party in power. Now with Democratic control, the party’s majority is poised to officially broaden the ethics committee’s powers, allowing it to amend any proposed bill and hold hearings. Those rules are expected to be unveiled this week when the legislative session convenes.

The lack of initiative during the past decade has left a litany of ethics issues untouched, including tougher financial disclosures for members, and retroactively stripping convicted legislators of their pensions. “The fact that this legislative body has been troubled with bad behaviors … is not really something that I think is an enigma or a quagmire,” Biaggi said. “I think when you have a body that’s taken seriously, that will enforce rules against members if they step out of line, and also have rules in place to monitor the behavior of its members, then I believe what we will see is more compliance with these rules.”

Among the rules Biaggi is citing is the public officers law that mandates legislators comport themselves appropriately while in office. Biaggi admits some of the rules cited in the law are gray and hopes to clarify them.

With Biaggi at the helm, good-government groups have a long list of reforms they’ve been proposing in vain for years. “Everything’s been on the backburner,” Kaehny said.

The committee’s influence will likely be powered by support from the top, primarily by Stewart-Cousins, who championed an ethics reform legislative package in 2015, where some of the bills, including banning outside income and barring lawmakers from spending campaign funds on criminal defense or personal use, could have gone to the ethics committee for review. They never did, and nothing ever came of it.

Stewart-Cousins did not return an email seeking comment, though her deputy leader, state Sen. Michael Gianaris of Queens, told City & State that the Senate leadership will clear Biaggi to chart her own course. “We intend to empower that committee in a real way,” Gianaris said. “Both to pass legislation and to conduct reviews of issues before it in a way that’s never been done before.”

Alessandra Biaggi
Alessandra Biaggi for NY State Senate

Following up meetings with legislative reforms will be the true test of the committee’s impact, a rare practice at least over the past decade. “The Republicans never did anything with the ethics committee; and in a place like Albany, which has no shortage of ethical issues, to effectively shut down that committee is a big part of the reason they’re no longer in charge,” Gianaris said. “They didn’t want to do anything to improve the ethical climate.”

Gianaris was there when Phillips called a meeting of the ethics committee in June 2017. The gathering came as the Republican-led Senate was reeling over news that so-called lulus – tens of thousands of dollars in extra pay for committee chairs – were awarded to Republicans and IDC members after being falsely listed on Senate certificates as committee chairs when they were actually just vice chairs not entitled to the stipend.

Gianaris brought a motion to end the practice when the committee met, but was shot down by Phillips after whispered consultations by present counsel. Phillips, who offered an excuse that she was new to leading the committee, ruled the matter would be brought up at the next meeting. It didn’t meet again.

Phillips did not return an email seeking comment on why the committee met so infrequently during her tenure.

Unlike Phillips, Biaggi intends to meet regularly, at least once a month, she said.

Through meetings with a sexual harassment working group, Biaggi said she has already begun hearing experiences of sexual harassment in office settings across New York state. For Biaggi, a platform on the state level should exist to get those stories out in the open.

“The fact that we have not made significant placement on this front, we have not taken the time to hear from different alleged victims of misconduct and abuse, sends a very big message,” Biaggi said. “It’s important that we allow them to have this place to be able to testify, to share their experiences, because I think that people need to hear from them. And when these types of things are spoken about, they help create the opportunity to create solutions.”

The early emphasis on sexual misconduct drew praise from Kaehny, who noted that a committee just getting on its feet is going to need to gradually expand its range. “She’s going to be building this committee up from having zero activity into being meaningful, so she should stick to a narrow entry just to get it into working order, get the staff used to doing things and to develop a team that is effective,” Kaehny said. “Because she is a woman, and she is going to have a lot of natural empathy and concern for the women’s harassment issue, that’s an excellent place to start.”

Advocates have plenty of other suggestions too, though. Betsy Gotbaum, executive director of Citizens Union, another good-government group, recommended a whistleblower hotline modeled after one established by the New York City Council Oversight and Investigation Committee. “My understanding is that they have a huge number of calls,” said Gotbaum, of the council’s hotline.

The pick of Biaggi as ethics chairwoman is not without irony. It was an ethics body that, before Biaggi’s grandfather resigned from the House of Representatives in 1988, was going to expel him. “That’s something that you either learn from it or you don’t, and this is an example of learning from it,” Biaggi said.

But will she succeed? If she failed, she wouldn’t be the first to have been stymied by New York’s entrenched culture of corruption. Cuomo and former Gov. Eliot Spitzer rode into Albany with promises to clean up the state Capitol but wound up achieving few ethics reforms. Veteran legislators know how to slow or completely water down any measure, interest groups like corporate trade associations and labor unions know how to work the levers of power, and party machines back in the districts can threaten a reformer with a primary challenge.

So, an ambitious chairwoman can’t change Albany alone – it’s her colleagues who will determine how far her efforts go.