Cuomo Leaves, But a Corrupt Political Culture Remains in New York

The structure of state government, with its centralized power and few ethical checks, invites scandal after scandal.

Lee Harris   ·   August 11, 2021
Governor Andrew M. Cuomo provides COVID-19 update. | Office of the Governor

This story was co-published with The American Prospect.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo resigned yesterday over findings by Attorney General Letitia James that he had harassed women, touched them inappropriately and made lewd comments. But the mood in Albany has shifted away from a style of discourse common at the height of the #MeToo era, which often emphasized protecting vulnerable women from being victimized by abusers. Instead, the governor's critics have described the sex scandals as one example of a wider pattern of corruption, workplace bullying, and abuse of power.

While the sexual harassment scandal held the spotlight, a separate investigation by AG James found that Cuomo had underreported total deaths among nursing home patients, after he drew fire for readmitting patients into nursing homes who had been hospitalized with COVID-19. 

And the governor still faces a probe into a $5 million book contract he inked for a memoir on “leadership lessons.” The AG is examining whether staffers worked on the book on state time, which would be an improper use of public funds.

Critics of Cuomo’s bullying management style have emphasized not only sexual misconduct, but also his artful manipulation of personal access.

Journalist Jessica Bakeman described the governor's dismissal of her—he joked about whether they were “going steady,” she wrote in New York Magazine—when she first met him at the Capitol, as a 25-year-old reporter in Albany for what is now Politico New York. 

“I never thought the governor wanted to have sex with me. It wasn’t about sex. It was about power. He wanted me to know that I was powerless,” Bakeman wrote, adding that the governor does not “spare men in his orbit from his trademark bullying and demeaning behavior.”

Cuomo’s fall has drawn a cascade of long-suppressed complaints from Albany politicos who long presumed him untouchable. Staffers, reporters, and others who worked with the governor describe his arrogance and controlling manner. But the governor’s story is only the latest in a state that has been beset by corruption scandals for years, a condition that seems baked into the structure of New York politics.

Cuomo is the third governor in a row to leave office in scandal. Governor Eliot Spitzer took office promising to tackle corruption, but resigned after revelations that he hired a sex worker. He now works in the real estate industry. Governor David Paterson, who served out Spitzer’s term, also skipped a run for reelection after a scandal over his administration’s meddling in an investigation when a top aide was accused of domestic violence.

A lead voice against Harvey Weinstein and self-styled champion of women’s rights, former Attorney General Eric Schneiderman resigned hours after an investigation by The New Yorker alleged that he was physically violent towards multiple women.

Manhattan Democrat Sheldon Silver, who spent 21 years as Assembly speaker, is serving a prison sentence of more than 6 years for corruption. Former Senate minority leader John Sampson is in prison for embezzlement, and for attempting to halt the investigation of that crime.

Former state Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, a Long Island Republican, resigned over findings that he had used his office to get his son no-show jobs. Another ex-Senate Majority Leader, Malcolm Smith, was sentenced to seven years in prison for attempting to bribe Republican Party leaders to let Smith, a registered Democrat, run for mayor on their party line.

All told, the statehouse has seen more than 30 corruption scandals in the last two decades. That's not counting other politicians who emerged from the same toxic brew, such as former Rep. Anthony Weiner, who served prison time for sending sexually explicit texts to a 15-year-old girl, and former Queens resident and one-time president Donald Trump.

Good government experts say many factors are to blame: a mix of political culture, noncompetitive elections, and, especially, the lack of a serious state watchdog. 

New York's power structure notoriously depends on “three men in a room,” who negotiate most deals, including the all-important state budget: the Governor, Assembly leader and Senate leader. (Fourteen days from now, when Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul is sworn in to replace Cuomo, that will be two women and a man). The extreme centralization of power is a key reason for corruption, good government experts say.

The governor steers negotiations with an iron fist, using arcane rules like chapter amendments—a bill that amends another bill, before it is signed into law—to shape negotiations. Chapter amendments are often used to correct minor errors, but at other times, the governor has pushed chapter amendments to gut bills sent to his desk by the legislature.

The state is notorious for machine politics dating back to Tammany Hall. It's a mostly one-party state; Democrats have perennially controlled the state Assembly, while, until 2019, Republicans held the Senate near-continuously since World War II—most recently when Cuomo encouraged the formation of the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC), a faction of Democrats who caucused with the GOP.

Yuh Line Niou, an Assemblymember from Manhattan, argued in an interview that Cuomo’s domineering management style derived from the same Old Guard attitude that shuts out and belittles women—“grabbing women's asses in elevators,” she explained matter-of-factly.

“He is so controlling that he was willing to give the Senate to another party,” Niou said.

The state is not only administratively but geographically centralized around Long Island and New York City. Hochul is poised to become the first governor from north of Westchester since Franklin Roosevelt.

Political influence may flow up the Hudson River from Wall Street. But once he is installed in Albany, the governor—not New York City’s mayor—holds the purse strings and brokers major development deals, concentrating influence and providing a focused target for special interests.

As a result, said Judith Enck, a climate advocate who was Obama's Regional EPA administrator, “Everything is stuck in the regulatory morass. State agencies are afraid to do anything before checking with the governor’s office, and that causes massive delays.”

State watchdogs intended to police this concentrated political power, such as the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE), are widely seen as toothless.

Cuomo has previously attempted to meddle with JCOPE's investigation of Joseph Percoco, a former top aide to the governor who is in prison for accepting bribes from businessmen seeking special favors from the administration, the Albany Times-Union found.

The newspaper’s editorial board has slammed the “epically incurious commission” for failing to look into Percoco’s work. The Office of the Inspector General, it added in an op-ed, is “a farce.”

JCOPE wasn’t the first time Cuomo got involved in a nominally independent investigation led by appointees. Cuomo launched the Moreland Commission in 2013, saying it would be free to investigate corruption anywhere in the state—including in his own office. But he subsequently loaded the panel with demands, disrupting and ultimately hobbling its work.

Aides also describe not only a secretive workplace culture, but explicit instructions to avert public scrutiny.

“It was communicated very clearly to me in my first week that we would be looking for avenues to shut down FOIL [Freedom of Information Law] requests. The law of the state — default disclosure and transparency — that was not the chamber’s position,” one former staffer in the executive chamber, who asked not to be named, said in an interview.

Preet Bharara, former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, brought cases against the Cuomo administration, including looking into Cuomo's shuttering of the Moreland commission. But even that oversight, which came from the federal level rather than the state's own authorities, wasn't without meddling: Cuomo complained to Obama about Bharara's inquiries, the New Yorker reported yesterday.

State lawmakers, including Sen. Liz Krueger of Manhattan, have proposed a new independent commission, which would have a bigger budget and more significant power to enforce state ethics laws. The plan would scrap New York's current ethics agencies.

Absent an independent watchdog with teeth, recent abuses of power are likely to outlive the Cuomo administration.

In the 1980s, ethical guardrails were missing but politicians were better held in check by shared political conventions, said Blair Horner, President of New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG).

“It was generally expected that you wouldn't hold a campaign fundraiser in Albany during session,” Horner said. “That was unseemly.”

In 2019, midway through state budget negotiations, Cuomo held a $25,000-minimum fundraiser that was not listed on his public calendar, but was attended by lobbyists, executives seeking tax breaks, and Cuomo's own state budget director, Robert Mujica, a fiscal hawk who previously served as the top Senate Republican aide.

The governor has since 2011 been seen as a creature of the same political culture that produced Donald Trump, which emphasizes brashness, drips with disdain for effete urban liberals, and relies on backroom dealing to see any ribbon cut or project undertaken.

“The people that succeed in a bare-knuckles political environment are the people that hit the hardest,” Horner said. 

Watchdogs see an opportunity for Hochul to remake the executive chamber's approach to transparency from the ground up. But absent structural changes, there’s no especially compelling reason to think that will happen this time around.

Lee Harris co-founded New York Focus and currently works part-time on strategy and development as contributing editor. She is also a staff reporter at The American Prospect, where her reporting focuses on climate, finance, and labor, and her work has appeared in outlets… more
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