Yesterday evening, Rich Boatti, Betsy Malcolm, and Allison Tupper testified at the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption. Here is the video, and the text of our remarks as prepared for delivery is below:
Moreland Commission Testimony by Rich Boatti
My name is Rich Boatti and I’m an attorney and on the board of Act Now NY, a progressive and good government political action committee. We like to fight corruption at the ballot box, notably getting involved in the race to defeat the piece of human filth otherwise known as Pedro Espada in his last election.
Thank you for allowing me to speak today. This commission is providing a valuable public service and first I want to thank all of you for your hard work on this.
The very nature of and need for this commission is a testament to how flawed the state laws are regarding the enforcement of public corruption. This commission is doing vitally important work, yet it only exists on an ad-hoc basis, and its members were needed to be both appointed by the Governor and deputised by the Attorney General in order to have a legal mandate with the correct scope to properly investigate public corruption. That this elaborate legal manoeuvre was even necessary is a testament to how effectively legislative leaders- specifically Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos- have blocked the creation of a permanent, independent single entity to police public corruption that can investigate all branches of government. Indeed, this Moreland Commision is necessary because of the utter impotence of the permanent enforcement body, the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, or JCPE, that has been imposed by Sheldon Silver. The JCPE can only be described as a joke. When it was tasked with looking into the Vito Lopez affair, Sheldon Silver’s appointees on the JCPE blocked it from looking into any wrongdoing by Speaker Silver and his staff, and how the Speaker himself likely violated state ethics laws by having the assembly agree to a confidential settlement with Lopez’s accusers, and paying them for their silence with taxpayer money.
Indeed Speaker Silver, Leader Skelos, and before him, Leader Bruno, have blocked an effective enforcement body for the legislature for years, even decades now. The JCPE is clearly not up to its task. What Albany needs is a permanent body with the same powers as this Moreland Commission, that has the legal mandate to investigate the legislature, the executive branch, lobbyists, campaign finance, political parties, municipal officials, and party county chairs, and is also completely independent of entities it is to police. Instead, we have the JCPE, which is supposed to investigate the legislature and executive, but has 8 of its 14 members appointed by members of the legislature and the rest by the executive branch. On its face, the JCPE is clearly a self-interested body whose structure alone makes it incapable of policing the legislature and executive branch in a manner that is needed. The JCPE needs to be reformed by having its mandate expanded to be essentially the same as this commission, and it needs to be comprised of members who are independent from the political branches of government. Perhaps its chair could be directly elected, or it could be rolled into the judicial branch.
It is also vitally important to investigate and ultimately change the law regarding county party chairs, because under current state law, county chars have too much unilateral power. For example, election law section 6-114 gives unilateral power to political parties on how they decide their nominees for special elections. This gives party machines the power to nominate their own machine people for special elections. This has historically been an open invitation for corruption, and this section of the law should be repealed and replaced with a provision that forces primary elections for all nominees, including those in special elections. Other legislative changes that should be proposed by this commission should include a public financing system based on the system currently in operation in New York City, instituting term limits for members of the legislature, the elimination of “member items” that allow legislators to buy votes with public cash, prohibiting the naming of any park or other public asset after any current member of the legislature, creating a “jungle primary” election system like that recently created in California, creating a nonpartisan entity to draw legislative district lines like exists in Iowa, prohibiting legislators from outside having outside employment, and lastly aligning state office elections to coincide with Presidential elections in order to increase turnout and dilute the power of county organizations who thrive at electing machine candidates in low-turnout elections. Alternatively, higher turnout could be achieved by instituting a civil fine for anyone who doesn’t vote, similar to the system currently used in Australia.
Moreland Commission Testimony by Betsy Malcolm
The recent Mayoral primary in New York City has been instructive in several ways. First, it has highlighted the inefficiency of the Board of Elections. We returned to the old lever machines because our new ones are incapable of managing a three week turnaround to a runoff election at any kind of reasonable cost, as if the Board of Elections couldn’t possibly anticipate a runoff election when choosing machines. Despite a low turnout there were lines and confusion at my polling place because the workers there didn’t remember how to use the old lever machines. Now, as I write this nearly a week after the election, we still don’t have an official first tally, much less a recount. Do we have a runoff election for Mayor on October 1st? We don’t know. Shouldn’t Board of Elections jobs be filled based on competency rather than being parceled out as patronage? This is embarrassing!
Second, I think the Mayoral primary showed the advantages of New York City’s campaign finance laws. Spending caps and matching funds allowed a candidate without big money support or even editorial board support from our largest newspapers to break through and win the most votes in the Democratic primary. He had a message that resonated with the voters and, given an equal chance to get his message out, was able to win. The system worked.
New York has one of the lowest voter participation rates in the nation. In 2010 we came in dead last. We have watched in disgust as our legislators get accused and convicted of ethical and financial irregularities. Why aren’t our legislators representing us honestly? Why do we think it’s hardly worthwhile to vote? Maybe it’s because we suspect our legislators’ votes are influenced by big money interests. We know we can’t count on them to vote for affordable housing when they keep their jobs through donations from developers. We can’t count on them to vote for a living wage for workers when big business donations keep them employed. Good jobs, fair wages, affordable housing, quality education, a clean energy future for New York … all of these depend upon who represents us, and whether they represent our needs or those of their big money donors.
Finally, our turnout may be so low in part because New York makes it so hard to vote. Other states have early in-person voting, vote by mail, and same day registration. Why can’t New York? There is no need for long lines at too few polling places. This isn’t rocket science. Let’s fix it.