A decade of DiNapoli: The comptroller looks back on 10 years of holding New York government accountable

A decade of DiNapoli: The comptroller looks back on 10 years of holding New York government accountable

A decade of DiNapoli: The comptroller looks back on 10 years of holding New York government accountable
February 5, 2017

It’s no surprise that state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli calls himself an “old-timer.” He got his start in politics as a teenager in 1972 when he was elected to the local school board, spent two decades in the state Legislature and was voted into his current office in 2007 after state Comptroller Alan Hevesi resigned due to a corruption scandal.

To mark the 10-year anniversary of his tenure as comptroller – he was sworn in on Feb. 7, 2007 – City & State Albany reporter Ashley Hupfl sat down with DiNapoli to discuss recent allegations of misspent state economic development funds, the comptroller’s relationship with Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the fiscal impact of President Donald Trump’s administration on New York.

The following is an edited transcription of the interview.

C&S: You first joined the Mineola Board of Education at age 18. What drew you to public service while so young?

TD: I’m often asked that question and I would say it was the times. I was a teenager in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. I grew up in Long Island in a pretty conservative Republican household and neighborhood, and it was a great time and a great place to grow up. But as comfortable as it was, you could see the world changing and a lot of conflict – the civil rights movement, the women’s rights movement, the environmental movement. … So I got involved in some of those causes and the big conflict at the time was the Vietnam War. Many of us looked at what was going on. We were the TV generation, so we saw all this playing out. We saw men not much older than us being killed. Every day they had the casualty announcements on the Vietnam War.

All this stuff going on, it really challenged conventional thinking about a lot of things. Obviously, one of the big pushes was to get the 18-year-old vote. Back then you could buy alcohol at 18, but you couldn’t vote. It’s the reverse of today. And you could be drafted, remember, there was a draft going on. Many of us felt challenged by the times, felt you couldn’t sit on the sidelines and particularly because of the war, and the draft, and the potential for dying for a war that many didn’t support really pushed us to be part of that movement to get the 18-year-old vote. It spilled over to my being active in school issues. I was the kid that ran for school president – and I won – and I started going to school board meetings. Frankly, I didn’t like some of the things that were going on with the school board. I felt the student voice wasn’t being listened to or included in decisions on policy and textbook selection, some of the issues I felt students could have some valuable input.

So what happened in my senior year with all this stuff going on kind of being forced awake from my safe, secure upbringing in Nassau County. The 18-year-old vote actually came in and the Constitution was amended. In 1972, which was my senior year in high school, I turned 18 in February and the school board elections were coming up in May and a couple of us got together and said we don’t like some of the things going on and we should vote – we should make sure as many of the seniors are registered to vote so that we could have an influence on the new school board trustee. One thing led to another and the conversation went to, “Who were we going to support?” and then we started to say, “Well, wait a minute. Why do we have to support any of these guys? Why can’t one of us do this?”

I had been the one probably going to the most school board meetings, and unlike a lot of my friends, I was staying home. I was commuting to Hofstra and had pretty well decided I wasn’t going away. I got on the ballot and I organized must have been 50 or 60 of my classmates and schoolmates and we literally knocked on every door. We had a map and we were really methodical. We would mark down where someone was favorable or unfavorable. Generally speaking, if they smiled and laughed that was considered favorable. If they slammed the door as some did, then that was certainly unfavorable. And we kept a list of who our supporters were and made sure as many people turning 18 by Election Day were registered to vote.

On Election Day, we had – very old-fashioned – phone banks, carpools. It was a rainy day, which somewhat depressed turnout, but we got our vote out and surprise of surprises there were a number of 18 year olds running across the state and I was the only 18 year old that won. I think a 19 year old won in upstate, but I always take some pride to being the first 18 year old to be elected to public office.

I had the rather unique experience of being elected to the school board in May, getting my high school diploma in June and being sworn in on July 1 and having the other unique experience of it was the first time I ever voted. It was the old days where you had the machine with the curtain – I miss that – and I went in and my name was there. I pull the lever and a few hours later I won. I thought, “This can’t be too complicated.” Thinking about it now, it’s weird. It was my first vote and it was for myself – and it worked.

It always gave me an optimistic feeling that even when you think it’s a long shot, if you put yourself forward in the right way, most people are willing to give you a chance. I think that’s always why I’ve never given up on electoral politics.

C&S: When did you first come to Albany?

TD: Well, it’s interesting how you phrased that question. I’ll answer it two ways. My first elective opportunity to come to Albany was when I ran (for) the state Assembly in 1986, so I took over that Jan. 1. I remember coming to Albany – to answer your question precisely – when I was in seventh grade. We had something called the Yorker Club, which was a club focused on studying New York history and I remember we had a tour of the Capitol and we were on the second floor and we saw Gov. (Nelson) Rockefeller. The next time I came to Albany, I actually worked on legislative session as an aide to my local assemblyman and I was the “back-and-forth” person (between Albany and the district). Let’s just say I was less than taken with a career in state government at that time and when I finished, actually I left right before the end of session, and I said, “No, I want to do something else.” So, my first work experience in Albany, while it was interesting, it didn’t really grab me.

C&S: Why did you dislike it?

TD: I think it was a combination. First of all, I think when you’re a staffer, especially when you’ve got to do the back-and-forth, it’s hard because you’re in Albany – and it’s the same when you’re a legislator, but you have staff helping you – then you’ve got to go back home. You’re dealing with legislative issues, constituent issues. The weather was cold. I stayed in the DeWitt Clinton (Hotel) the last time it was fixed up before it went to disrepair again. I would walk through the Justice Building – it’s called the Abrams Building now – I remember when I was elected to the Assembly and I came back and walked in that same door – and it wasn’t much later – and I said, “Oh, no I’m back here. That’s not where I wanted to be!”

But a couple things happened. I always knew I wanted to pursue public service, but I never thought it was going to happen. So I served on the school board for 10 years, including two terms as president. I became active in the Democratic Party, which back then Democrats were not too successful in my area. I ran for town office unsuccessfully and was pretty much resolved to the fact that I was going to work in the private sector. I actually ended up not pursuing law school, which was my father’s dream, and I ended up working for AT&T for 10 years. I’d pretty much resolved that being a Democrat in Nassau County, I was not going to have an elective office career, but I didn’t want to work full-time in government, either. I felt that private sector employment was more secure and I ran for town supervisor in 1982 and lost and that same year Bob Mrazek was running for Congress and we won and we became very good friends. He wanted me to work for him full-time running his district office in Nassau County and I really debated it and had pretty well decided I was going to take the job. Then I took a step back and said, “I’d take a pay cut from what I’m making in the private sector and … is that really what I wanted to do?” So I decided not to take it and he encouraged me to, even though I was going to work for him full-time, at least work as a part-time district representative. I would cover meetings for him while he was in Washington, (D.C.), and that kept me in the loop of the local politics. So I had kind of resolved I was going to work in the private sector, do the rep work for the congressman, help other candidates, but that would not be in my future. Then, I was finishing up my master’s at night at the New School in the city and out of the blue the woman who had been in the Assembly for many years, May Newburger, decided not to run for re-election last minute and a couple people had called me – and I had moved from where I had been living in Albertson, which is part of the Mineola School District, to Great Neck. Where I had lived it was very Republican. Great Neck was very Democratic. Same town, just different neighborhoods.

A couple people called me and said, “You had that unsuccessful but still strong run for town supervisor a couple years ago, why don’t you run for the Assembly?” And I went, “Well, I’m finishing up my master’s, I’ve got this good job, I kind of like what I’m doing.” And I remember I talked to Bob Mrazek, I talked to a lot of people, and he said, “I can’t tell you what to do, but if public service, if you feel it is your calling, this is your opportunity. You don’t get many opportunities as a Democrat in Nassau County.” Back then, it’s a different story now. “And if you really want to do it, chances are you aren’t going to have another opportunity like this.”

So, I took a deep breath and I decided to take a shot at it. There were about 15 people that competed for the nomination and it came down to me and one other fella and I eked out by I think literally five votes for the nomination at the convention. It was expected there’d be a primary, but everyone kind of got together and there wasn’t a primary and I ran in 1986 and didn’t win by a lot – but I won – and I came here in January 1987. I’ve never really looked back and regretted it. Although, I should say, my first year I was here I questioned whether I made the right choice because some of what I remembered when I worked here came back and I think the biggest challenge for me that first year is when you work in a corporation, especially a big one like AT&T, if you had a question about what to do, there were clear policies and procedures and you could always get direction. When you come to Albany, especially as a freshman, it’s like, “Who do you talk to? Where do you go? How do you get an answer to a question? How do you get a bill done? How do you get a grant for your district?” There’s no policy book to take off the shelf to answer that question. You’ve really got to make connections and build up credibility and a lot is related to seniority. I found that first year really frustrating and I really questioned if I made the right choice, but once I settled down after the first year I’ve never really looked back on either public service as an elected official nor state service. I think there’s a lot that’s done in state government that has a real impact on people’s lives, and while most people in government hold out Washington, (D.C.), and Congress to be the end-all, be-all, I’ve never really had that hunger for Washington, (D.C.), especially now with what’s going on down there – I’m glad I’m here! I didn’t expect it to be 20 years (in the Assembly). In fairness, I did try to get out at one point when I ran for (Nassau) county executive. Unfortunately that didn’t work out. I had a primary that was on Sept. 11, 2001 – a famous date – and a lot of things got turned upside down. Even after that experience, when I came back, I was made chair(man) of the (Assembly) Environmental Committee and I had some of my best years in the Legislature in terms of legislative work and accomplishment. Obviously, if I had not hung in there, when again the unexpected opportunity for comptroller arose, had I not been there, had I not had the relationships I’ve built up for 20 years, I wouldn’t be in this position. The lesson of it is that you can plan all you want in politics, but there’s a lot that happens way out of your control and you just never know when an opportunity will present itself and whether or not that opportunity is going to work out for you. But if you don’t try to seize on the opportunities presented, you’re never going to know what might be in store for you.

C&S: Has Albany changed at all over the years?

TD: Yeah, I think it’s changed. When I first got here, a lot of the old-timers said, “It’s not the way it was,” kind of nostalgic. It was never quite clear how it was, but now sometimes I say, “It’s not like it was.” Now I’m one of the old-timers. There’s always been a partisanship, there’s no doubt about that. In the years I was in the Legislature, there was a strong majority in the (state) Senate, so it wasn’t like it is now. So there was always that divide. I served with Democratic governors and Republican governors, but in the Legislature it was always pretty clear that if you wanted to get anything done, you needed a partner on the Senate Republican side. Coming from Long Island, which until recently every senator was a Republican, I had a lot of folks that I got to know, because we were from the same region. But, I do think in the past it was easier for people to – when you were out of session – to socialize and put aside the partisan differences after the debates and after the votes. I felt towards the end of my time in the Legislature and observing it now, I do think it’s been harder on the relationship side for people to recognize that relationships are important, even if you have a partisan difference.

You look now with the Senate Dems being split, even in the Democratic Party you see division, and that certainly wasn’t the case in the past. I was in the Assembly when Mike Bragman challenged Shelly Silver (for the leadership position) and that was a very divided time, as well, so I don’t want to make it sound like it was perfect back then – it wasn’t. I do think it was easier. It seems to be (there are) tougher divisions than there were then and I think some of it is the overall political climate. There are a lot of things that are more uncertain today in a lot of ways. I think in some ways it is a tougher town. I also think the big difference now is you have a huge turnover in members, certainly in the Assembly. We have an awful amount of members who have just been here a few years, if that long. That gives a different flavor to everything. I still think there’s a lot in transition, if I can put it that way. I don’t think it’s better or worse, I think it is what it is. I think now in Albany you have two leaders that are relatively new, they’re not brand new, but I served with both of them. John Flanagan and I were elected the same year to the Assembly in ’86. I’ve known him a long time and I served with Carl (Heastie) and I think they are coming into their own as leaders and I think there’s evolution in both houses in terms of how the majorities are functioning and how the leaders are handling their responsibilities.

C&S: As comptroller, how has your relationship been with previous governors compared to Gov. Andrew Cuomo?

TD: I’ve always said – and it really is true – this job is really set up to be in a positive way to be in tension with the executive. I think with the Legislature, as well, but particularly with the executive. We’re auditing what state agencies are doing. We’re commenting on the state budget. We’re having to sign off on certain contracts. When you’re playing an oversight role, you are invariably going to find some opportunities to make suggestions for doing things differently or better. There are going to be criticisms. I always try to point out that the staff that does the audits and most of the staff that does the contract procurements – these are civil servants, they’re career people, not political people. Most of the people that work here are not people that I brought in, they came up through the merit system of civil service. That’s why when I hear, “Oh, it’s all political,” it’s like, “Have you met my auditors?” They’re not exactly political people. I don’t know if they’re Republicans or Democrats. I don’t know if they like me or dislike me. They have their own standards they have to adhere to and if they don’t, then they will not be in compliance with their own professional standards, which has all kinds of downsides for them.

That being said, we’re often in the position where we’re the ones saying, “You can’t do that or you should do that in a different way.” So, when Eliot Spitzer was governor, we had some issues, when David Paterson was governor, we had some issues, and certainly with the current governor there has been some disagreements. I remember Arthur Levitt Jr. – Arthur Levitt Sr. was the comptroller – his son Arthur Levitt Jr., he was (U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission) chairman for a while. He came to visit me shortly after I became comptroller because I had, if you remember, a somewhat contentious appointment process and he wanted to see if I had three heads like some people said I had. We were talking and he said, “If you’re doing your audits and your oversight work and nobody criticizes you,” and he meant particularly the executive, “my father always said you’re not doing your job if you’re not getting criticism.” I always remembered that. In terms of tenure, Eliot Spitzer wasn’t there very long. Paterson was there for I guess three years and I’ve had a longer experience with the current governor. Obviously, there have been moments where that institutional tension, if I can call it that, has reared its head. But, again, I think we’re doing our job. I stand behind what our auditors do. Contrary to some assertions, they’re not my opinions. I don’t tell the auditors what the pre-determined outcome of the audit should be. I make sure when I see the audit that it’s one that is credible and I can defend and I think I can say I’ve never had an audit that I couldn’t defend. I think some were more relevant than others and I stand by their work. I think in this era where taxpayer dollars are still stretched and revenues are at a premium, I think that being the office that is the watchdog and promotes transparency and promotes accountability, I think that’s what people want today. I think in the end it makes what the governor does, what the Legislature does better and more credible to have this kind of oversight. As I said, with every governor there has been tension and I think that just comes with the territory of the office.

C&S: Given the recent economic development scandals, would you like to see changes in how the state does its contracting?

TD: We have a pretty detailed package of procurement reform. First of all, over a couple of budget cycles, our oversight has been diminished because some of that oversight is statutory. We were removed from approval of SUNY construction and construction-related contracts. The Office of General Services has these huge centralized contracts where they’ve put a lot of contracts that had previously gone through different agencies into one big OGS contract and we were taken out of that approval. So, at a minimum, I’d like to see that authority restored. Many of the charges relate to that specific authority, though I think it was a piece of the SUNY Poly that was a construction piece in the state charges, but at a minimum we should have restored what was taken away and I do think we should be given expanded authority with the SUNY research center, particularly contract approval and renewal. I think we should not allow the use of these nonprofits like Fuller Road and Fort Schuyler, which are set up way, way apart from SUNY higher ed and really used to funnel money in a way that evades transparency and evades oversight accountability, particularly from this office. So, I think restoring our oversight that’s been taken away, expanding it in some cases and limiting the use of these nonprofits would be a way to ensure that these dollars (are) going to a worthy purpose, such as jobs, and are spent in the right way. Even if on some of these contracts we wouldn’t have the direct authority, the more that people would perceive that there is more oversight, there is some more checks and balance. It removes the temptation from people who think they can get away with it. If we had a more direct role – and we are the logical place, instead of setting up all these new entities, this is what we’re set up to do. Do we catch every single thing? Well, obviously not, but I think if folks knew we had some role in this, they’d be less tempted in thinking they (could) get away with it. Because I think in this instance they deliberately set up in the slogan of being more efficient. “We don’t want things slowed down at the comptroller’s office. We need to be more efficient, get that money out the door.” They created a totally insular process where the folks who set it up and knew it was without any real oversight, some were very tempted. If the Buffalo Billion is doing great things in Buffalo, great, but it shouldn’t be set up so that some people got rich along the way.

“I stand behind what our auditors do. Contrary to some assertions, they’re not my opinions. I don’t tell the auditors what the pre-determined outcome of the audit should be. I make sure when I see the audit that it’s one that is credible and I can defend and I think I can say I’ve never had an audit that I couldn’t defend.” – New York state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli

Look, we have to give the U.S. attorney a lot of credit because it showed even if you think you can get away with it because you have a closed system, someone’s going to eventually figure it out and that’s what happened.

C&S: Going back to your years in Albany, you’ve witnessed a fair amount of corruption. Will it ever change?

TD: It’s such a hard question, because New York isn’t the only state with these problems and state government isn’t the only level of government with the problems. It just does seem, especially in recent years, that there have been so many people in higher elected office that have been – I mean, I wouldn’t be in this position if not for my predecessor having to resign. I don’t understand why smart people – and most of the people we’re familiar with were pretty smart people – would think that they could get away with in effect monetizing their offices, because usually it’ll involve money or use of power inappropriately. I think one of the challenges some people face when they get in office, instead of realizing it’s a temporary opportunity that the public has conferred upon you, they tend to think that it’s theirs and they’re entitled – the arrogance that comes. I don’t think people run for office planning to be corrupt. Just thinking about people I know that got in trouble, I think that they just got lost along the way. They just have a sense of entitlement and they try to have it all. If you’re going to be in public office, the first thing I say to people is, “Don’t think you’re going to get rich. Because the only way you’re going to get a little money out of this, the only way that’s going to happen, is if you do something wrong and whether that’s someone cheating on their travel vouchers, à la (William) Boyland (Jr.), or the kind of money involved in the (former) speaker’s corruption case. It’s like, the salary is what the salary is and if that’s not enough, then don’t do the work. It’s not worth it to cheat on your travel forms to get a few thousand dollars more. Is it really worth it? People get in the bubble and think that the rules are different for them and they’re not. One thing I do feel strongly about is that we need more people running for office, especially at the state level. It’s why I do think we need to have the public financing of campaigns to take the money out, but more importantly, more competition. Even for my office, to run statewide is a crazy amount of money, and even if you’re running for state Assembly or Senate, they feel if they’re not personally wealthy, they can’t compete. So a lot of people self-select and don’t run. Then you have the issue of how districts are drawn and they tend to favor those who have run. I did benefit from that in the Legislature, so I think you need more competitive elections in terms of how the districts are drawn and public financing of campaigns. Then you need the public, the voters, to really take a look at who they’re voting into office. I think a lot of people are elected without a lot of scrutiny. I think if there was a little more careful selection, we might end up with this happening less often.

C&S: What are your thoughts on the governor’s proposed budget?

TD: We’re still in the process of reviewing it. We’ll have a report out soon. I think it’s a challenge in that the revenues are obviously coming in below where they thought they would be a year ago. Now that the Division of Budget has lowered expectations, it’s more or less on target. What we’re really analyzing is not just the coming year, but long term. Some of the gaps we had projected, how are they being dealt with? I think as always with this governor, it’s an ambitious plan with a lot of policy in it as well as spending. I think some of the proposals probably will need a little more work. There’s a lot of interest in the tuition proposal, but some questions about how specifically it gets implemented, how many students will be benefitted. I think there’s some concern from local governments about linking the AIM funding to the consolidation plans and having the counties be involved in that and obviously the big debate with the Legislature is different positions on tax policy – the Senate not wanting to extend the surcharge on higher income residents and the Assembly not only wanting to extend it but go beyond it. I think certainly because the revenues are not as strong as they’ve been, I think the governor made a reasonable recommendation that we continue that surcharge, because if you’re going to want to do the spending, like education has a $1 billion more, you need the revenue from somewhere. Extending something that’s already on the books is easier to do then starting anew. I think overall at first blush there’s a lot there that seems to hold together, but what happens during the legislative process, what kind of changes there are, I think we need see how that plays out. Another big concern we have is the use of debt. New York unfortunately has relied very heavily on debt and that limits options for the future. So, when we put our report out I think there’ll be a significant commentary in terms of the level of debt in this budget.

C&S: Are you preparing for fiscal repercussions of the Trump administration?

TD: That’s an interesting and important question. We put out a report or a statement that Ken Lovett picked up in December that if there’s a full repeal of the Affordable Care Act and the related health programs, the state could be out something like $5.7 billion. Now depending on if they repeal and replace, it might not be that severe, it’s really a worst-case scenario. One of the real questions is, how soon will this take effect? There’s some theory that they’ll repeal it, because that’s what they have to say, but it won’t take effect for a long time. My understanding is in this budget they’re not anticipating any change in the immediate future, but that is a real uncertainty because you don’t know how fast they’re going to move. I think in terms of the Trump administration, the huge negative is what he’s going to do with the Affordable Care Act because we benefit in terms of money coming in from that, putting aside the human aspect. A plus could be on infrastructure. He’s talked about that a lot. Again, what that’s going to mean, how is he going to pay for it, how is it going to be targeted to which states? I mean, New York is an older state with big infrastructure needs and that is a potential big plus for us. I kind of look at the Trump administration as a looming big negative on the health care side and some positive potential on the infrastructure and capital spending side.

“I think in terms of the Trump administration, the huge negative is what he’s going to do with the Affordable Care Act, because we benefit in terms of money coming in from that, putting aside the human aspect. A plus could be on infrastructure, he’s talked about that a lot.”

C&S: Any chance you’ll run for governor one day?

TD: One day? That’s pretty broad. I say it. but people don’t believe me. To me, this job is the best job in state government. It’s great being a statewide official and I loved representing my district on Long Island, but New York’s such a wonderful state and to have exposure to every region has been great. I enjoyed being a legislator, even though I didn’t think I would in the beginning, advocating and voting and having an opinion on everything. With this position, you take a step back, because you’re more focused on the big picture, long term, less partisan role. I like that. I think it gives you a real opportunity to be more reflective and think big picture and I do think there’s so much relevance to what we do because the public is so concerned about accountability and how taxpayer dollars are being used. I like being in this position running an agency that has a clear mission, so my goal has been to run for re-election in 2018 and no different plan than that. If you’d said to me when I was in high school that I’d end up as state comptroller, I would have said that’s not exactly what I think I’m spending my life’s work (doing), so my other experiences show, you never know where things lead. But at this point, I’m certainly honored and feel it’s a privilege to be state comptroller and I hope to do it long term.

Ashley Hupfl