On Wednesday, shortly after Norman Seabrook, president of New York City’s jail officers’ union, was arrested on corruption charges, Governor Andrew Cuomo gave a speech promising new regulations on independent expenditure committees (a.k.a. super PACs). This is the fourth time in five years that the governor has proposed such regulations, Politico reports, which—even in the unlikely event of them passing—would not actually do very much to ameliorate corruption in New York.
Cuomo introduced the “Addressing Dark Money in Politics,” opinion from his chief counsel, Alphonso David, addressing the 2010 Citizens United decisions and offering points of clarification. Certain terms in the decision, David opines, have not been properly defined, and New York state law should be changed to more clearly demarcate the relationship between candidates and independent spenders.
“Our democratic process has changed dramatically recently,” Cuomo said on Wednesday. “Campaigns have become more and more dominated by money. Now, not only must a person have money to compete on the political stage, but if you can’t afford the price of admission, you can’t even get into the audience. Unless you make a significant contribution, your voice is no more than a whisper in the political process.”
“You will hear politicians speak openly about setting up their own independent committee,” the governor continued. “You can’t set up your own independent committee. It is a clear legal violation. But they will say it and the press and the public don’t even blush, it is that open and notorious.” He added: “Sometimes the entity is run by family members of the candidate, and they claim that it is independent.”
But according to Politico, that has never happened in a state-level election in New York: In the last election cycle, super PACs spent a total of $18 million across all gubernatorial, attorney general, comptroller, Senate, and Assembly candidates—amounting to less than seven percent of all money spent on state races. The governor’s campaign committee, meanwhile, raised three times that much.
Cuomo was once one of Albany’s so-called “Three Men in a Room,” a turn of phrase that referred to the governor, the former assembly speaker Sheldon Silver, and the former senate majority leader Dean Skelos—three men who had consolidated power to such a degree that they, essentially, ran the state themselves. Last year, however, Preet Bharara, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District for New York, successfully prosecuted Silver and Skelos on federal corruption charges. During the Skelos trial, evidence also emerged that Glenwood Management, one of New York state’s biggest real estate developers, and its principle owner, Leonard Litwin, had contributed more than $2 million either to the governor or to organizations supporting his agenda.
In April, Bharara said he would be “looking hard” at those holding executive office at both the city and the state level. A sprawling corruption investigation has already implicated multiple members of New York City mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration—though not the mayor himself—and several city officials have been indicted on a variety of charges. (The governor’s development efforts have also been subjected to a federal probe.) “We intend to be as aggressive as ever in exposing corruption wherever we find it,” Bharara said on Wednesday, announcing Seabrook’s arrest. “It is too bad we seem to find it everywhere we look.”
In his January State of the State address, Cuomo laid out a plan to limit outside income for legislators, strip elected officials convicted of crimes of their pensions, increase public financing of campaigns, and close the LLC loophole which allows individuals to skirt contribution limits. However, the state budget, passed in March, contained no government ethics provisions.
“The Legislature wants to say [it] can be trusted. There’s no better way to do it than to pass real reform that makes a real difference in ethics and takes on the number one challenge in this nation, which is Citizens United,” Cuomo said Wednesday. “Until you fix that, you fix nothing.”
Well, maybe. There’s no denying the destabilizing effect Citizens United has had on electoral politics, but it is not the primary source of corruption in New York politics. In fact, it seems that the governor is using the controversial decision as a kind of red herring. From Politico:
The administration memo does not, for example, point to a section of law that would apply to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s coordinated fund-raising through county party committees to help Democratic state Senate candidates in 2014 — a practice now being reviewed by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. Nor does the memo target nonprofit groups that engage in lobbying, like de Blasio’s Campaign for One New York or Cuomo’s own Committee to Save New York, because their efforts are not considered electoral spending.
It almost helps the governor, in this regard, that so much of what he does is seen through the lens of how it might hurt de Blasio, and several questions after Cuomo’s speech immediately centered on the mayor. The governor said the mayor was not his impetus, but did seem to reference a comment de Blasio made about possibly setting up a Super PAC to support his re-election. The extent to which he’s in the crosshairs won’t be fully known until Cuomo’s shop releases the text of his proposed legislation. (It did not on Wednesday.)
All of that is to say: Cuomo is addressing inchoate calls for reform by condemning the mysterious—yet recognizable—Citizens United boogeyman, positioning himself as, at least, sympathetic to the people’s frustration with political corruption without actually pressing real reform.
Not that it hasn’t been well received in the legislature. “Buoyed by the Citizens United ruling, Independent Expenditure groups have enjoyed an outsized influence on our politics in recent years,” Majority Leader John Flanagan said in a statement. “While we cannot stop the flood of money, I agree there is more we must do to increase transparency and disclosure surrounding the activities of these outside groups.”