Analysis: Albany Needs to Let More Sunshine In

The Committee to Save New York, a group promoting Gov. Cuomo's agenda, takes a small step toward transparency.

By Gabe Pressman
|  Tuesday, Dec 4, 2012  |  Updated 5:50 PM EDT
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Analysis: Albany Needs to Let More Sunshine In

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It’s all a matter of perception. 

When candidates depend upon fat cats to contribute to their campaigns, the citizens, the ordinary voters, feel excluded. That, Susan Lerner of Common Cause told me, is a major problem with our political system. She says that the “highly successful fund raiser” has to be converted to become an advocate for reform if we are going to change the system.

It does seem noteworthy that supporters of Gov. Cuomo set up the Committee to Save New York -- essentially to boost the governor’s program and that this private lobbying group, according to the Associated Press, did not have an obligation to publicly disclose who contributed to it.

The committee, according to the New York Times, raised $17 million and spent nearly $12 million for television and radio advertisements to praise the governor and urge support for his agenda.
Cuomo has called often for transparency in government. And yet, critics say, his idea of transparency didn’t extend to him. The money raised to promote his programs didn’t seem to fall into the category of money that had to be accounted for publicly.

Dick Dadey of the reform group, Citizens Union, told me it was “distasteful” for Bill White, who was fined $1 million for his involvement in deals between the state pension fund and several investment funds, to then give a contribution of $12,500 to the pro-Cuomo campaign, and for the campaign to accept it. It was Cuomo, as Attorney General, who pushed for the investigation of the pension fund and White.

The Committee to Save New York consists of so far unidentified people who are united in wanting to promote the governor’s agenda. I put in a call to the governor’s office to find out whether, in the interest of transparency, Cuomo would favor requiring people who back the pro-Cuomo committee to be identified.

A spokesman for the governor, Matt Wing, pointed out that, as of last summer, the Joint Commission on Public Ethics requires that anyone who contributes more than $5,000 to a group like the Committee to Save New York must have its donation listed. However, that will not cover the contributions made to this committee in years past.

Disclosure will apply only to the future. And it will not be full disclosure. According to a complicated formula, only part of each contribution will be reported.

The governor’s press office sees this as progress. “For decades,” a spokesman told me, “ the source of not one dollar given to these groups was required to be disclosed but thanks solely to the governor’s ethics bill passed by the legislature last year, New York State now leads the nation, as it is the first and only state to require disclosure from these groups.”

Dadey, of Citizens Union, says: “It’s true, some progress has been made, but we will seek more disclosure. For, as these groups pop up, there will be a greater need for scrutiny to see where the money is coming from and where it’s going.” 

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