NY Assembly Taps New Speaker To Fix Ethics Mess

Carl Heastie
Newly elected Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx) passed a resolution honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his first vote as leader of the chamber.

The Democrat-led New York State Assembly elected Tuesday a New York City lawmaker as their first new speaker to replace Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan), who resigned after being arrested on federal corruption charges.

Aside from being the chamber’s first new leader in 21 years, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx) is the first African American to hold the top post. His ascension comes amid renewed calls for ethics reform in the scandal-plagued state legislature. One day earlier, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said he wouldn’t sign the state budget unless ethics reform is passed first—effectively threatening a government shutdown.

“This change in leadership will bring about much-needed reform,” Heastie told the Assembly in his acceptance speech immediately after the vote. “The actions of a few have given calls for cynicism….We will change the cynicism into trust once again.”

In his opening remarks, Heastie said the reforms must include increasing transparency on how public funds are spent, new rules on disclosing legislators’ outside income and giving lawmakers their first raise in 16 years so they don’t need to rely as much on outside income.

Cuomo detailed his proposals during a speech Monday at the New York University School of Law. He called for legislators to fully explain the source of outside income, stripping pensions from lawmakers convicted of crimes, ending the practice of using campaign funds to pay personal expenses and tightening campaign finance rules.

“The legislature will not want to pass new ethics laws,” Cuomo said. “Legislators will say that this is an intrusion into their private business and they will be right, but my answer is that their private business has intruded into state government first, and that public service is a privilege and an honor and it is a sacrifice that they must make.”

State Senate Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre), who regained control of the state’s upper legislative chamber in the November elections, signaled support for reform as well amid reports that he is also under investigation—reports that he denied.

“We are always open to building on the reforms we’ve already enacted to improve the state’s ethics and disclosure laws for all branches of government, and will take a close look at what the governor is proposing in the hopes of working together to achieve a positive result,” Skelos said in a statement. He noted that he expected the budget to pass on time.

Assemb. Charles Lavine (D-Glen Cove), chairman of the ethics committee, said any discussion about such reform cannot come without public hearings to fully hash out the proposals.

“In discussions with many Assemblymembers over the last days, it becomes obvious that the word reform has many meanings and seems, like beauty, to be in the eye of the beholder, ranging from new district office furniture to term limits to the return of member item discretionary funding,” Lavine said in an email to fellow legislators. “Some of my colleagues want to adopt reforms immediately. While this desire may be a natural reaction to our crisis, there is absolutely no unanimity on the form these reforms should take.”

Among the proposals Cuomo called for was publicly financed elections—a plan designed to mitigate the influence of money in political campaigns. But, a pilot program for such a plan famously failed last year by only applying the state comptroller’s race and being enacted midway through the campaign cycle. That flop paled in comparison to the fallout from Cuomo’s Moreland Commission on public corruption, which he disbanded before its investigation was complete last year.

Preet Brarara, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, subpoenaed those files and continued that investigation, leading to Silver’s arrest for allegedly using his power to earn more than $4 million in bribes and kickbacks through two private law firms. Silver pleaded not guilty to fraud, and although he resigned from his leadership post, he has not vacated his Assembly seat. Brarara, who has said the investigation into Albany public corruption is continuing, warned: “Stay tuned.”