ALBANY – Pay-to-play corruption scandals that have blemished state government could have been prevented if the power to review procurement contracts had been restored to the Comptroller's office, reform advocates contended Wednesday.
The issue of contract transparency has divided two top New York Democrats – Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, a former assemblyman who has been the state's chief fiscal watchdog for 10 years.
Legislation that would restore oversight authority to DiNapoli's office is advancing in both houses of the Legislature. The groups signaling their strong support for the measure include the League of Women Voters, the New York Public Interest Research Group, Reinvent New York, Common Cause and the Fiscal Policy Institute.
"We want to make sure these deals are not being done based on favoritism and conflicts of interest," said Jennifer Wilson, policy director for the state chapter of the League of Women Voters.
DiNapoli has stepped up his advocacy for getting contract review power returned to his office following the 2016 arrests on bid rigging and corruption charges of Joseph Percoco, a former top aide to Cuomo, former State University Polytechnic Institute President Alain Kaloyeros and several upstate construction company executives.
John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany, argued those scandals could have been prevented had DiNapoli's team of auditors been able to review the contracts. In some instances, he said, the contracts were laced with specifications that favored developers who had donated money to Cuomo's campaign fund.
One alleged example of improper favoritism in the awarding of contracts, as spelled out in indictments issued last year, were the charges brought against LPCiminelli founder Louis Ciminelli, whose company lined up the work for RiverBend’s SolarCity project in Buffalo, Kaehny said.
Cuomo, a lawyer, argued last week that the contract scandals arose because some unscrupulous individuals resorted to criminal schemes to line their pockets.
"We had a series of criminal violations," he told reporters. "That's not an audit problem. If you try to treat it as an audit problem it means you're avoiding what it really is, which is a fraud and problem of criminality."
On Wednesday, his spokesman, Rich Azzopardi, suggested the reformers make their organizations more transparent before they criticize the contract system.
"This is the same crew who preaches transparency for others and then sues to overturn state law and keep their benefactors secret," he said, referencing litigation challenging new mandates requiring nonprofits involved in legislative advocacy to disclose their donors. "If we need a crash course on hypocrisy we know who to ask."
Cuomo's reform proposal would have an inspector general having oversight for contracts issued by state agencies and authorities.
But Sen. Robert Ortt, R-Niagara County, argued DiNapoli's office should be in the loop.
"It shouldn't be too much to ask that billions upon billions of tax dollars be accounted for through oversight by the state's designated fiscal watchdog," Ortt said.
Blair Horner, legislative director of NYPIRG, said bypassing the comptroller on procurement is akin to "painting the windshield of the speed trap cops."
He and other watchdogs called on state leaders to limit campaign contributions from anyone seeking a state contract.
A bill returning contract oversight to the comptroller -- it was quietly taken away by lawmakers in 2011 -- is moving through both houses. This week, both Senate GOP Leader John Flanagan, R-Suffolk County, and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Bronx Democrat, both spoke in favor of the concept, though stopped short of backing the specific bill.
DiNapoli said in an interview with public radio this week that it is crucial for state contracts to be scrutinized before they are finalized.
“You’re talking about billions of dollars that previously had been under our review that is not,” DiNapoli said. By having an "independent set of eyes" involved in the review, he added, "we might be able to catch some things before you have a problem.”
Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.