There is nothing subtle about Gov. Kathy Hochul’s approach to ethical government — she’s against it, and it shows.
But there’s something perversely refreshing about Hochul’s contempt for conflict-of-interest convention. She scarcely pretends to care, and how often does that happen?
It’s unclear whether this reflects arrogance or is just more evidence of executive-chamber dim-bulbism. The accidental governor hasn’t been around long enough for an aide to go to prison — a hallmark of the previous administration — but Hochul seems to be working on that.
Take this gem, courtesy of Albany Times Union statehouse reporter Chris Bragg.
Late last year, according to Bragg, Hochul policy director Micah Lasher received an after-hours email from Manhattan developer — and significant Hochul campaign contributor – Paul Milstein.
It seemed that the State Liquor Authority had denied a booze permit Milstein sought, and the developer demanded that the decision be reversed.
And within five days — the speed of light by Albany standards — it was. Milstein was grateful, emailing his appreciation to Lasher and Kevin King, a ranking executive-chamber staff member.
“Micah and Kevin, can’t thank you enough, you guys crushed it!!!!!”
Responded King: “We aim to serve. So glad things worked out.”
Goodness. “We aim to serve”? Really?
Give King credit for candor, but earlier administrations would have dumped his bleeding body in the Hudson River for a crack like that — politically speaking, of course. But it doesn’t seem to be the case that Hochul even cares.
Yet one thing is quite clear: The Times Union’s Bragg has performed a remarkable public service, illuminating Albany influence-peddling at the retail level, and underscoring the ethics deficit that has informed Kathy Hochul’s Albany tenure.
She was a second-tier player in Western New York when Andrew Cuomo — the prince of Albany pay-to-play — picked her for lieutenant governor in 2014. Whereupon two things swiftly happened: Her husband Bill, a former federal prosecutor with no obvious relevant experience, was named general counsel to Buffalo-based casino-entertainment giant Delaware North — and Delaware North began lobbying the lieutenant governor’s office.
Subsequently, Hochul engineered an $850 million taxpayer-funded cash bath for a pro football stadium in Buffalo — a deal from which, serendipitously or otherwise, Delaware North stands to make a bundle as the stadium’s concessions holder.
None of this appears to have been illegal, so perhaps it’s just further evidence of the Hochul administration aiming to serve — whomever.
But it’s definitely the Albany way. There’s so much discretionary “economic development” money floating around the capital city that shenanigans are inevitable. The second-most-powerful man in the Andrew Cuomo administration went to prison for development-related bribe-receiving. Plus federal prosecutors spent much of the former governor’s tenure probing look-alike schemes and scams up and down the Mohawk River-Hudson River corridors.
Hochul lived through much of this, so one would think she’d be sensitive to the optics of ethical corner-cutting — if not to its actual substance.
One would be wrong.
Newly sworn in last summer and in need of a lieutenant governor of her own, Hochul quickly settled on Brian Benjamin of Harlem, a then-state senator well-known for small-beer boodling in the Tammany style. Soon Benjamin was indicted on federal corruption charges — he’s scheduled for trial in January — and if Hochul was surprised by this, she was in a minority of one.
More likely she just didn’t care: Benjamin is a defund-the-police type, and she was entering an election year and concerned about her left flank.
Besides, who cares about ethics when there is business to be done, special interests to be served and campaign cash to be banked? A lot of cash; Hochul, if nothing else, is a fundraising demon.
She went on a tear starting in September and by late last month had stashed some $34 million — with reasonable prospects of doubling that by Election Day. (Andrew Cuomo, who could squeeze blood out of a stone, seems a piker by comparison).
Did Paul Milstein, the liquor-license supplicant, and his associates kick tens of thousands into the kitty? Why, of course they did — and to demonstrably good effect, too.
That’s how things are done in New York — writing checks is the default practice. So right now the only real unknown is who else the Kathy Hochul administration is aiming to serve — and how.
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