Attorney General Schneiderman proposes more reforms, except for those needed in his office

By LOUIS FLORES

From the steps to the old Tweed Courthouse, State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman (D-New York) announced on Wednesday that he would introduce a bill in the final weeks of the state legislative session that he said, if passed, would enact ethics reforms to address the spree of political and campaign corruption engulfing the state capital.

“The corruption we’re seeing in New York State government takes power from the hands of regular New Yorkers and taints the honorable work being done by the lion’s share of public officials. New Yorkers have had enough of so-called ethics reform that tinkers around the edges—what we need now is bold reform that gets to the root of corruption, equips law enforcement with the tools needed to fight it, and professionalizes our state legislature,” said Attorney General Schneiderman, in a statement released to the press. “It’s time to end the parade of prosecutions and restore people’s faith in their government.”

Attorney General Schneiderman's omnibus legislative proposals would reform the state legislature by banning outside income for legislators, banning per diem payments, increasing salaries for legislators, and initiating a process to amend the state Constitution to extend the length of terms in office for legislators from two to four years.  

The proposals would also amend criminal laws by granting jurisdiction to the state Attorney General's Office to investigate and prosecute public corruption cases ; creating a new crime for undisclosed self-dealing, even though self-dealing would apparently not be banned ; expanding criminal liability for bribery, and strengthening pension forfeiture provisions in the law.  

Finally, the proposals would also seek to enact an array of campaign finance reforms, specifically, creating a new public campaign finance system to be administered by the inept state Board of Elections, lowering campaign contribution limits, closing the "LLC Loophole," eliminating political party housekeeping campaign accounts, sharply limiting campaign contributions from individuals doing business with the state, sharply limiting contributions and fundraising by lobbyists, and banning the use of campaign funds for some personal use. 

Attorney General Schneiderman's office did not answer a request made by Progress Queens for an interview for this article. 

By announcing his intent to introduce a legislative bill, Attorney General Schneiderman is following-through on a speech he made last March in which he outlined similar, proposed ethics reform measures.

As reported by Progress Queens at the time, Attorney General Schneiderman has been identified to be amongst a number of state attorneys general, who have been receiving gifts or campaign contributions from lobbying groups, even in the face of investigations conducted by the various offices of the state attorneys general that involve other clients of the same lobbying groups.  

In the case of Attorney General Schneiderman, his campaign committees have received campaign contributions from entities, which have received financial support from Hebalife Ltd., a multi-level marketing company that sells nutritional products, even as Attorney General Schneiderman has been reportedly probing Herbalife after complaints have been made about the company's labour practices, as well as other allegations that Herbalife operates as a pyramid scheme.  Attorney General Schneiderman has also received gifts in the form of unpaid consulting services provided to him by Jennifer Cunningham, who is Attorney General Schneiderman's ex-wife.  She regards herself as the "most powerful woman in Albany" and is an unregistered lobbyist with the firm SKDKnickerbocker, a firm which has been retained to provide consulting services to Herbalife.

That all it may take for a corporation to potentially successfully thwart a probe by the state Attorney General's Office is to hire Ms. Cunningham's firm undermines the autonomy and integrity of the highest ranking prosecutor in state government.  Other clients of Ms. Cunningham's firm have included former New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who faced complaints made by her constituents at the time that she had monetized her public office by accepting approximately $30,000 in campaign contributions from owners of the real estate development firm, Rudin Management Company, in the time leading up to that firm's seeking Speaker Quinn's support for the firm's $1 billion luxury condominium and townhouse complex conversion of St. Vincent's Hospital.  

According to standing tradition, the New York City Council defers to the Councilmember in whose district a zone-busting real estate development deal is situated to determine the New York City Council's disposition of zone-busting applications.  St. Vincent's Hospital was located in the West Village neighborhood of Manhattan, within Speaker Quinn's district, and, in the end, Speaker Quinn voted for the Rudin luxury condo conversion plan, clearing the way for the entire New York City Council to approve the real estate development deal.  

That all it may take for a public official to escape prosecutorial scrutiny for having received large campaign contributions from developers in the time leading up to the official's approval of the developer's zone-busting deals is to be a client of Attorney General Schneiderman's chief political advisor further undermines the independence and integrity of his office, government reform activists say. 

Attorney General Schneiderman's pattern of accepting campaign contributions from lobbying groups and gifts from lobbyists with conflicting clients mirrors the activities revealed in a bombshell report about the actions of corporations to allegedly thwart the probes of state attorneys general in similar fashion.  Although the report mentioned the lobbying work done by Herbalife, the report intentionally omitted the actions of Attorney General Schneiderman.  Nonetheless, for the scope of revelations in the report about the lobbying that has been undertaken to allegedly thwart prosecutorial investigations, the journalist Eric Lipton of The New York Times was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting.  

Notwithstanding that Attorney General Schneiderman's conflicts of interest were omitted from the bombshell report, his conflicts of interest were made a campaign issue by his Republican Party challenger, John Cahill, during Attorney General Schneiderman's reëlection race last year.

Attorney General Schneiderman has proposed his ethics reforms as local and state prosecutors have largely stood by and taken no prosecutorial action as governments from City Hall to Albany have become immersed in political and campaign corruption scandals.  As the administration of Governor Andrew Cuomo (D-New York) was reportedly obstructing the work of the corruption-fighting panel known as the Moreland Commission, for example, Attorney General Schneiderman kept mum, even though he had deputized the panel's commissioners to serve as deputy state attorneys general in order to extend his office's jurisdictional authorities to the panel's commissioners.  

Other do-nothing complaints have been made about District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr. (D-Manhattan), District Attorney Richard Brown (D-Queens), and District Attorney David Soares (D-Albany), who have, likewise, kept but a mere silent watch over the corruption scandals ungluing elected officials operating in their respective jurisdictions.  

Attorney General Schneiderman's ethics reform proposals nominally seek to increase his office's authorities over corruption cases.  However, unless and until local and state prosecutors find the political will to probe and prosecute corruption cases that would undoubtedly be rejected by the bosses of their own respective political parties and by the clients of their closest consultant-advisors, no amount of enacted reforms will inspire more confidence from the public that local and state prosecutors will actually follow through on their enlarged mandates.