Something’s Rotten in Denmark

For at least a year now, the people of the United States have been following (sometimes with glee) the investigation into allegations that the Russian government has meddled in our electoral process. Questions of the Trump campaign’s involvement continue to be asked. Robert Mueller continues to investigate, and so far, 19 individuals have been charged with crimes, including 13 Russian nationals. But the corruption and conspiracies don’t end there. New York governor Andrew Cuomo has been involved, albeit indirectly, in his own high-stakes political and criminal case.

Federal prosecutors in Manhattan have targeted an investigation against Mr. Cuomo’s administration. Joseph Percoco was a former aide and long-time family friend to Mr. Cuomo. He is currently standing trial, along with 3 other private citizens, accused of accepting more than $300,000.00 in bribes from executives of two companies who frequently contracted business with the state government. Mr. Percoco has been charged with bribery, extortion, and conspiracy. He admits he did favors for these individuals, but claims he did so only on a friendly basis, and not because of his position of influence.

The prosecutors of the case make disturbing allegations, particularly as they link up to the governor, although the governor himself has not been charged with any wrongdoing. For example, Peter Galbraith Kelly, an executive with Competitive Power Ventures, an energy firm, offered Percoco’s wife a ‘no-show’ job with $90,000.00 in annual compensation in exchange for favorable treatment from the state regarding two power plant projects. Other executives of companies created shell companies to funnel bribes directly into Mr. Percoco’s pockets.

And while the governor himself is not being prosecuted, the proximity of his aide’s actions, coupled with his own behavior, speak loudly about his true feelings on the compatibility of ethics and politics. Mr. Cuomo made campaign promises to fix the corruption and shadowy deals that plagued the office of the New York governor. Yet, Mr. Cuomo wilfully accepted more than $30 million in campaign donations from corporate donors through what’s been referred to as the “LLC loophole.” This loophole has allowed businesses to donate large sums of money through a series of LLCs, rather than directly.

Additionally, there is evidence that 37 Cuomo appointees gave up to $2.2 million to his political campaign. This is in spite of an executive order renewed by Mr. Cuomo which prevented appointees from donating to or soliciting donations on behalf of the governor who appointed them. Yet Mr. Cuomo’s administration has decided to interpret the directive otherwise, believing the order applies only to appointees who could be fired at any time by the governor, rather than those appointees serving set terms. He has thus benefited from millions of dollars from board members of the some of the state’s most powerful agencies.

Unfortunately for Mr. Cuomo, he is running for re-election this year, with rumors of a Presidential bid for 2020. No doubt the prosecutors will emphasize the pay-for-play nature of politics in New York, casting a pall over his reputation before he even begins his presidential run. Mr. Cuomo’s own actions, though legal, indicate that is willing to listen to the interests of large, wealthy corporate donors in exchange for a sizable donation to his campaigns.

Pay for play is not a new concept. But advanced democracies should recognize the tendency of people to be bribed and cajoled in exchange for a benefit, and resist the temptation to succumb. But lately, it seems that these so-called political reformers, outsiders, and individuals wanting to drain the swamp simply want to swap the swamp for a different kind of bog – one where they benefit instead.

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