Andrew Cuomo has accepted roughly $890,000 directly from state officials he has appointed to office, and a further $1.3 million from spouses, children and businesses of appointees. This is despite an executive order he signed which many believe to outlaws the practice.
Serving at the pleasure of Governor Andrew Cuomo
Executive Order number 2, originally issued by Andrew Cuomo’s predecessor Eliot Spitzer in 2007, was meant to ban the practice of state officials contributing to New York governors after their appointment to office. Not only would this limit actual corruption, but it would eliminate the appearance of corruption. Increasing the pubic trust in government was one of the key objectives of the executive order, as set out in its preamble.
Andrew Cuomo also signed this same executive order when he came into office in 2011. The text of the executive order is fairly unambiguous about who it applies to:
“This order shall apply to all State agency officers and employees who serve at the pleasure of the Governor or their appointing authority, and to all members of all public authorities who are appointed by the Governor.”
And likewise unambiguous about what is not allowed:
“No individual covered by this executive order may make or offer to make any monetary contribution to the campaign of the Governor or the Lieutenant Governor, or to any political campaign committee organized by or for the specific benefit of the Governor or the Lieutenant Governor. In addition, no individual covered by this executive order may request or demand that any other person make or offer to make any monetary contribution to the campaign of the Governor or the Lieutenant Governor, or to any political campaign committee organized by or for the specific benefit of the Governor or the Lieutenant Governor.”
According to New York Times coverage which broke the story, Governor Cuomo has found an unexpected, and very helpful way to interpret this order.
Cuomo’s counsel Alphonso B. David told the New York Times, “The purpose of the order is to prohibit employees and board members who serve at the pleasure of the governor from making political contributions.
“It does not apply to every single person who serves in government, to individuals who volunteer for government, or to individuals who were appointed by the Senate and cannot be removed by the executive. A different reading simply divorces the purpose of the order from its language.”
It is this last caveat that is key: that the order only applies to Cuomo appointees who are not subsequently confirmed by the New York State Senate. This interpretation would allow board members of many of New York State’s most powerful authorities to be eligible to donate to Andrew Cuomo after receiving an appointment.
Unsurprisingly, Andrew Cuomo’s liberal interpretation of the order is not held by everyone.
Former Governor Spitzer, the originator of Executive Order 2, was quoted in the New York Times, saying, “The executive order was intended, and did, in fact, apply to all gubernatorial appointees, regardless of the need for Senate confirmation, or any term applicable to their service.”
A river of money
Helpfully for Andrew Cuomo, there are plenty of wealthy people he has appointed to important positions who received confirmation from the State Senate.
The New York Times piece details 37 Cuomo appointees who, along with their family members and companies in their control, have donated a total of $2.2 million to Andrew Cuomo.
An example would be Onondaga County Executive Joanie Mahoney, who was appointed by Cuomo as chair the New York Thruway Authority in 2015. Since her appointment her campaign committee, Friends of Joanie Mahoney, has donated $10,000 to Cuomo’s campaign. As Mahoney’s appointment was confirmed by the New York State Senate, the Cuomo campaign would argue the contribution is legitimate.
Joanie Mahoney is actually one of the smaller contributors listed in the New York Times coverage. Real estate developer Aby J. Rosen has given $40,000 to Cuomo since being appointed chairman of the New York State Council on the Arts. His real estate holding company has donated a further $50,000.
Hotel magnate George Tsunis donated $15,000 to Cuomo following his appointment to the New York Convention Center Operating Corporation. Tsunis also made a $5,100 “in-kind” donation which is thought to be a summer fundraising barbecue at his Long Island home in June 2017.
Cuomo has appointed Howard Zemsky to two board positions: chairman of the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority in 2012, and president and chief executive of the Empire State Development Corporation in 2015. Since his appointment, Zemsky’s wife Leslie has donated $95,000 to Cuomo.
Who watches the watchmen?
Andrew Cuomo does take the rule against donations from his appointees seriously enough to put it on his official campaign website:
“No State agency officer or employee who serves at the pleasure of the Governor or their appointing authority or members of State public authority or other boards appointed by the Governor may contribute to and/or fundraise for Andrew Cuomo 2018.”
The good news for the Andrew Cuomo campaign is there is virtually no chance the agency responsible for the enforcement of Cuomo’s executive order will intervene and threaten the millions of dollars he has amassed for his upcoming campaign.
As an executive order, this rule lacks the full force of the law. And as such, the only person responsible for taking any action against Andrew Cuomo’s alleged infraction is…. Andrew Cuomo.
An opponent speaks out
Raising such a vast amount of money has given Cuomo a massive advantage for his re-election bid in November. Perhaps for that reason he faces no serious opponents among Democrats or Republicans. Unusually, the candidate who came in second in the first fundraising reporting (by a wide margin) was Libertarian Larry Sharpe.
Sharpe thinks the problems in New York are much too big to be solved by current reform measures.
“Cuomo is part of such a corrupt system that even with an executive order against crony capitalism, he couldn’t stop himself,” Sharpe told News Growl.
“It’s not just him; it’s the system. It’s the culture. The culture is so rotten. We can punish the offenders, and we can write executive orders, but it isn’t enough.
“We need a total cultural reboot to put an end to this corruption.”