Under a shroud of questions, Schneiderman proposes ethics reforms

State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has improbably proposed ethics reforms for Albany even though he is part of the culture of corruption up in Albany, activists say.  Source :  Eric Schneiderman/YouTube (Screen Shot)

State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has improbably proposed ethics reforms for Albany even though he is part of the culture of corruption up in Albany, activists say.  Source :  Eric Schneiderman/YouTube (Screen Shot)

By LOUIS FLORES

State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman (D-New York) proposed ethics reforms in what was touted as a major address from the state's normally quiet top prosecutor.

After he delivered his speech Monday night at an event hosted by the good government group, Citizens Union, Attorney General Schneiderman self-congratulated his proposals as going "further than any package previously proposed by a statewide elected official or legislative leader."

His proposals included increasing the salary for legislators in order to make legislators accept a ban on outside employment income and an end to per diem payments, changing the terms of state assemblymembers from two to four years in order to end the corruptive cycle of nonstop fundraising, providing the Attorney General's Office with powers to prosecute public corruption cases, a voluntary public matching funds system that will be inadequate to stop campaign corruption, lower contribution limits, closing the LLC loophole, eliminating housekeeping campaign committee accounts, limiting pay-to-play contributions that falls short of an outright ban, and strengthening election law enforcement that ignores the reality that appointees to the New York State Board of Elections will not rigorously investigate officials with shared political party affiliations.

“We have more vigorous cops on the beat, defending the public trust, than ever before -- but prosecutors can only respond to the symptoms of a system that is very, very ill,” Attorney General Schneiderman said in a statement issued following his speech, adding, in part, that. “To cure the disease, we must break a pattern in which scandal is followed by outrage, which is followed by reforms that largely tinker at the margins, which are ultimately followed by another scandal. It looks to the people of New York like one charade after another.” 

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By contrasting the huge numbers of police officers across New York state and the scant attention by local prosecutors to take up public corruption cases, Attorney General Schneiderman appeared to ridicule the "Broken Windows" approach to policing that focuses law enforcement attention on very low level infractions, thereby allowing perpetrators of major public and corporate corruption off the hook.

Attorney General Schneiderman also proposed fuzzy recommendations, particularly, calling for the empowerment of individual legislators, which he said would attract talented people to public office, and for an amendment to penal law to prohibit undisclosed self-dealing, the latter which would be predicated on the premise that when self-dealing is disclosed, it should somehow be excused.

The proposals made on Monday by Attorney General Schneiderman mirrored some of the proposals previously made by a group of Democratic Party state legislators.

One of the elected officials racing to embrace Attorney General Schneiderman's proposals was State Senator Brad Hoylman (D-Chelsea), who "praised the comprehensiveness of the reform ideas," according to a report in The New York Times.

As previously reported by Progress Queens, before State Senator Hoylman was elected to the state legislature, he served as chair of Manhattan's Community Board 2, where he oversaw the zone-busting real estate development project proposal for St. Vincent's Hospital submitted by Rudin Management Company.

At the time when residents in the West Village and Chelsea were fighting to preserve hospital zoning for the real estate of St. Vincent's, Mr. Hoylman was employed by the Partnership for New York City, a chamber of commerce-like organisation where the apparent ringleader of Rudin Management Company, William Rudin, served as a director.  Rudin Management Company was also a member of the Partnership for New York City.  The Partnership for New York City's president, Kathryn Wylde, and a lobbyist for Rudin Management Company, Travis Terry, later became campaign contributors to Senator Hoylman's campaign committee after Rudin Management Company's luxury condo conversion deal was approved by city officials.  

At the time, some West Village and Chelsea activists complained about the unethical and borderline illegal appearance of how the $1 billion luxury condo conversion project could be steered at the Community Board level by a political operative, who reported to Mr. Rudin, and steered at the City Council level by former Speaker Christine Quinn, who received $30,000 in campaign contributions from the Rudin family.  However, such disclosed self-dealings would seemingly be approved under Attorney General Schneiderman's proposal, even though such dealings would appear unethical and could be borderline illegal, as some hospital activists had claimed.

Attorney Geneneral Schneiderman's grandstanding proposals for ethics reforms in Albany are coming in the wake of a series of controversies in his office.

As the administration of Governor Andrew Cuomo (D-New York) was reportedly thwarting the corruption-fighting work of the Moreland Commission, Attorney General Schneiderman just stood silently and let it all happen on his watch, an act that many government reform activists saw as enabling the culture of public corruption up in Albany.

In the last year, Attorney General Schneiderman became the third high profile New York politico to become embroiled in an e-mail scandal, following Hillary Clinton and Governor Cuomo, when the Attorney General's Office initially denied before later thwarting a Freedom of Information Law, or FOIL, request for correspondence between the Attorney General's Office and Jennifer Cunningham, the ex-wife and a campaign operative for Attorney General Schneiderman.  According to Chris Bragg, the journalist who filed the FOIL request, two months after the request was made, Attorney General Schneiderman's office began to delete emails older than 90 days.

A press official with the Attorney General's Office was contacted by Progress Queens for comment about Attorney General Schneiderman's decision to begin deleting emails after a FOIL request had been lodged seeking emails, but the press official failed to respond to the request.

Ms. Cunningham serves as a consultant for Attorney General Schneiderman's campaign committee at the same time when her consulting firm represents clients seeking to influence government policy.  In initially denying the FOIL request, Attorney General Schneiderman rationalized the denial by stating that Ms. Cunningham also acted as an informal advisor to the Attorney General's Office as a shield to prevent the release of state employee emails.

The machinations to block the release of Ms. Cunningham's emails garnered Attorney General Schneiderman intense public criticism last year when his Republican Party challenger in the Attorney General's race, John Cahill, said at a campaign press conference, "The Attorney General’s Office should be above reproach, and [Schneiderman] has, in my opinion, debased the Office of Attorney General by trying to confer this phony status on his political consultant," according to a report in The New York Post.

Predictably, the role of the Ms. Cunningham's consulting firm in the Attorney General's Office has triggered a serious allegation of a possible conflict of interest. 

At the same time when the Attorney General's Office has reportedly been investigating allegations whether Herbalife Ltd., is operating as a pyramid scheme, the target of that investigation, Herbalife, has retained Ms. Cunningham's consulting firm.  Although Herbalife has denied that Ms. Cunningham will work on its account, Ms. Cunningham earns her living from the success of her firm, SKDKnickerbocker.  Adding to the appearance of a conflict of interest, Attorney General Schneiderman's chief of staff, Micah Lasher, is a former founding partner of SKDKnickerbocker.

Herbalife and/or its outside counsel, Dickstein Shapiro LLP, have either made contributions directly to one of Attorney General Schneiderman's campaign committees, or else the pair have made contributions to an intermediary lobbying group, the Democratic Attorneys General Association, which, in turn, made its own contribution to one of Attorney General Schneiderman's campaign committees.

Given the outsized influence of SKDKnickerbocker in the Attorney General's Office, General Schneiderman's proposals for ethics reforms in Albany failed to address the corrupting role of lobbyists, who doubled as campaign consultants, up in Albany.

Attorney General Schnederman's speech was made following a series of speeches made by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, the top federal prosecutor in New York's southern district, who has been waging a campaign against public corruption.  At U.S. Attorney Bharara's most recent speech, delivered on March 6 at Fordham Law School, he spoke generally about public officials have hereto before been loathe to confront the prevalence of public corruption.

"Anyone, who denies the fact or suggests that corruption is not a pervasive problem, given the cases that we've brought recently in Albany, is off-base, and everyone, who is in a position to do something about it, bears a responsibility to cure the problem, and that includes prosecutors, and the public, and the press, and the politicians themselves," U.S. Attorney Bharara said, in part.