Cuomo's ethics reform undermined by his lack of financial transparency

Cuomo must follow his own rules

When Gov. Andrew Cuomo laid out his five-point plan for ethics reform, he proclaimed his party was creating a new standard for campaign disclosure, one which even merited its own catchphrase: “Explain the money.”

But now that Senate Republicans expect Cuomo himself to “explain the money,” the governor is balking.

Republicans are calling for Cuomo’s partner, Sandra Lee, to disclose her income and other personal financial information.

Lee, who hosts a television show on the Food Network and has multiple culinary business deals, owns the home in which Cuomo and Lee currently reside. The residence is valued at $1.2 million, and Lee’s net worth is reportedly $20 million.

There is no suspicion surrounding Lee herself, and the law isn’t just about the governor and his girlfriend – after all, the pair began dating before Cuomo became governor, and there is no evidence of any conflicts of interest.

The issue instead lies in the lack of transparency from any state employees who are unmarried but have domestic partners and are therefore shielded from any requirements of financial disclosure.

Married couples have to share their financial information, so couples with similar levels of commitment should face similar expectations.

In the wake of the arrest of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who is accused of abusing his position and using his second job as a personal injury lawyer to pocket millions in bribe money, it’s beyond obvious that greater transparency is needed in Albany.

State lawmakers, and their partners, regardless of how those partnerships are defined or certified, need to be open about their employment and income, so it can be determined that there are no conflicts of interest.

Perhaps a requirement of financial disclosure may feel like a violation of privacy, but such intrusion is necessary, and a sacrifice that state lawmakers need to accept in exchange for their privileged positions.

The state also wouldn’t be the first to impose such a requirement – it’s established as law in Alaska and Maine, as well as New York City.

New York should join their ranks, and take an important step in fixing a very broken ethics system.

Individuals who have earned the right to run the state and make decisions on behalf of New Yorkers must accept that they haven’t earned any form of impunity.

Rather, they and their families must accept that power and privilege brings along responsibility too, and the necessity for transparency.

Cuomo and Lee need to realize this. The governor cannot justifiably continue to call for ethics reform and increased transparency while refusing to disclose information about his own lifestyle.

This proposed policy is not about only Cuomo and Lee, but the many state employees with similar partnerships.

But the governor and his partner do serve as an effective illustration of the problem: the state ethics agency has defined Lee as part of the governor’s first family, allowing her to fly with Cuomo on state aircraft.

Lee’s not married to Cuomo, but she’s by his side as he runs the state. And yet, the state cannot require her to disclose financial information. That needs to change, and if Cuomo is truly serious about his dedication to ethics reforms, he must try to make it happen.