In the late hours of Friday, Dec. 11 — the very day Skelos was found guilty of corruption — the governor took a pen in hand and vetoed two bills that would have increased government transparency. Reporters had gone home from the capitol and the slow weekend news cycle had begun.
The next day, the governor issued a strange executive order, putting his own, weaker reform into place while claiming to "lead by example in advancing transparency and efficiency in government." He also promised to encourage state legislators to embrace more comprehensive reforms, a pledge he has made before, with little to show for it.
Then Cuomo embarked on a celebratory tour, burying news of his actions beneath a dog and pony show about the $500 million Upstate Revitalization Initiative awards. On Monday, he was in Rochester, where he was christened "the savior of Upstate" by University of Rochester president Joel Seligman. The governor talked tough with reporters, promising to hold recipients of the economic development money accountable, and touting the extreme importance of transparency.
Anyone who believes in a healthy democracy should flabbergasted by all of this.
The two bills struck down by the governor were designed to strengthen New York's Freedom of Information law, or FOIL. These were measures introduced at the request of the state's Committee on Open Government; five of its 11 members are appointed by Cuomo. Virtually every public interest group in New York backed the legislation. Yet, in justifying his vetoes, Cuomo called the language in the bills "radical," "myopic" and "seriously flawed."
Reinventing Albany, a New York City-based good government organization, quickly issued a comparison between the alternative reform put forth in Cuomo's executive order and the two vetoed bills. It shows the bills would have had considerably more impact.
The fact that the FOIL vetoes, and the lame executive order, came in the wake of two of our state's biggest political scandals shows a shameful and extraordinary lack of commitment to increasing government transparency and accountability. But it is hardly an isolated incident.
Cuomo has failed to deliver on his promises to close the LLC loophole, a major flaw in campaign finance laws, while he has continued to benefit from millions of dollars in LLC contributions. He abruptly shut down the independent ethics commission he created, after it started looking in uncomfortable places. His 90-day automatic deletion policy for all state emails was discontinued after receiving intense criticism from state lawmakers and legal experts. His handling of the "Buffalo Billion" has raised serious questions. An ethics package he hailed as "dramatic reform" earlier this year has been scoffed at by good government groups.
Cuomo has repeatedly said he places a high priority on cleaning up Albany, but his deeds say otherwise.
Poughkeepsie Journal not fooled either:
Gov. Andrew Cuomo was dead wrong to veto bills that would have helped those seeking public documents and his flimsy replacement should hardly settle the matter.
The governor waited until virtually the last minute before axing two measures — one would have greatly narrowed the time for government to decide whether to appeal a Freedom of Information ruling, the other would have provided attorney’s fees to members of the public who win such court fights.
The governor alleged the bills were “flawed.” Actually, his reasoning is flawed.
For starters, if the governor truly had problems with the language in the bills, there was plenty of time to work through these issues during the legislative session. These good-government initiatives, in fact, have been around in various forms for years. If the governor had the political will to see them become law, they would have become law by now.
For another, the governor’s replacement, an executive order, directs all state agencies to adhere “to the spirit” of what was sought under the bill to stop needless delays in FOIL appeals. That’s not good enough, not even close.
The governor took exception to the notion that state agencies would have to comply with a tighter appeal deadline, but the legislature wouldn’t necessarily have to adhere to such a standard. While it’s true the legislature has been able to skirt too many FOIL requirements, the governor and the agencies he controls should be leading by example and working to bring the legislature along.
What’s more, as good-government experts have pointed out, the vast majority of FOIL requests are directed at state and local governments, as well as school districts. Narrowing the timeframe for government bodies to appeal decisions is imperative; as is, these appeals can drag out for months, sometimes rendering the information useless when it is finally released. The vetoed legislation would have forced government agencies to file a notice of appeal within two months, not the ridiculously long nine-month window that some have taken.
In addition to his executive order, the governor promises more FOIL-related reforms will be put forward in the new year. The public will be watching. The state is dealing with the fallout from various political scandals that have landed some of its top political leaders behind bars. Transparency is essential to an accountable, open government.
The governor should be leading the charge, not pulling bait and switches that leave public-document laws much weaker than proposed.
The governor's b.s. used to fool people, including the editorial boards, into thinking that he was serious about cleaning up Albany and making government more transparent.
Few are fooled these days.