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Cuomo Proposes Ethics Reforms Following Slew of Scandals

By Jill Colvin | April 9, 2013 2:13pm | Updated on April 9, 2013 8:10pm

CITY HALL — Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed a package of public corruption reforms Tuesday in the wake of scandals that have rocked the political world and undermined Cuomo's promises to reform Albany's culture of abuse.

The Public Trust Act, which Cuomo unveiled at his Midtown office alongside the city's district attorneys, would boost the penalty for defrauding the government, attaching higher penalties to crimes committed against the government than if the same crimes were committed against a private business.

It would also boost the crime of "official misconduct" from a misdemeanor to a felony, punishable with a maximum penalty of four to 15 years in jail.

"You're not going to legislate away criminality and greed and venality and abuse and arrogance... [But] What we can do and what we must do is everything you can do to make sure the system prevents abuses," Cuomo told reporters during the press conference announcing the measures.

The plan, for the first time, would made it a misdemeanor for a public official or employee to fail to report bribery, and would allow prosecutors to charge those who try to bribe public officials even if they cannot prove that covert deal had been hatched.

Further, anyone convicted of public corruption would be permanently barred from holding elected or civil office, and would no longer be able to lobby, contract, receive state funding, or do business with the state, officials said.

Cuomo said he hoped the plan would help bring state laws in line with federal rules, and empower the state's district attorneys, whom he described as "the primary criminal law enforcement agents in this state."

The measures would boost the statute of limitations for individuals working with public officials to commit crimes up to five years and would give witnesses testifying before a grand jury less extensive immunity so that they could be prosecuted if other evidence emerges linking them to crimes.

The measures come in the wake of twin scandals that have rocked Albany and the city's political class.

State Sen. Malcolm Smith, City Councilman Daniel Halloran and two GOP bosses were arrested April 2 on allegations of an elaborate bribery scheme aimed at getting Smith a slot on the mayoral ballot.

Two days later, Bronx Assemblyman Eric Stevenson was arrested for allegedly agreeing to introduce state legislation in exchange for cash. Assemblyman Nelson Castro was also forced to resign.

Both cases were brought by United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara, who has achieved widespread attention in the press for cracking down on state corruption.

Cuomo said he wanted to leverage the current scandals to pressure lawmakers to pass the reforms quickly.

"I want to strike while the iron is hot," he said. “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste."

Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance Jr. said the legislation would help to clamp down on corruption by giving prosecutors tools they need.

"The public expects elected officials to conduct their dealings ethically and honestly and it's time that our laws caught up with reality," he said.

Senate Majority Coalition co-leader and Republican Dean Skelos also praised the plan.

"While no legislation can prevent someone from committing a corrupt act, using one's public office for personal gain is never acceptable," he said in a statement. "In light of the charges brought last week by the U.S. Attorney against members of the Legislature, we must redouble our efforts to create a government New Yorkers can be proud of."

In addition to Tuesday's proposals, Cuomo said more reforms are in the pipeline, with changes to the state's campaign finance laws and the Board of Elections likely to follow.

But he said that, regardless of legislation, corruption would never be fully snuffed out.

"You have a bad combination of chemicals," Cuomo said of politics. "You have power, you have money, you have ambition, you have greed. You put all those chemicals in one test tube and you shake it up and bad things happen.

"Will you ever stop all public integrity abuses? No, not unless we change the human behavior patterns and human nature," he said.  "But our obligation is to put together the best system you can to stop them, prevent them, catch them and punish them when you do."