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New York's state comptroller says corruption can be curbed. Here's how

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New York NOW
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New York State Capitol

New York’s top money-manager has a few ideas for curbing corruption in New York, including a proposed black-out period for campaign donations from companies who do business with the state.

New York State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, who’s up for re-election next month, said he’d also welcome ways to give the auditing powers of his office more teeth.

“It would be nice if we could tighten up the response to the audits that we put out there,” DiNapoli said in an interview with New York NOW.

If you don’t know who DiNapoli is, or what his office does, you’re not alone.

More than two-thirds of likely voters said in a recent poll from the Siena Research Institute that they didn’t know enough to have an opinion about the Democrat, who’s now been in statewide office for more than 15 years.

But the state comptroller’s office can have tremendous power. Aside from managing the state’s public pension fund, the state comptroller is often seen as an overseer of state spending.

That’s changed in the last decade, after former Governor Andrew Cuomo worked to curtail some of that power.

Cuomo, in his first term, had successfully sought to remove the comptroller’s power to pre-audit certain state contracts related to SUNY, CUNY and the state Office of General Services. Cuomo wanted to skip those audits to expedite certain economic development projects.

A few years later, multiple developers and a state economic development official were convicted in a bid-rigging scheme involving state contracts related to the Buffalo Billion, one of Cuomo’s signature projects in Western New York.

That prompted DiNapoli to propose legislation that would restore the pre-audit oversight previously stripped from his office. It was opposed by Cuomo, and didn’t initially pass.

But a version of that bill is now in the hands of Governor Kathy Hochul after it passed the state Legislature with near-unanimous support in June. Hochul hasn’t taken a public position on the legislation, but her office said the bill is under review.

“I think it’s key for the governor to sign it,” DiNapoli said. “I think, this legislation, signing it would be the strongest signal that the governor could put out there that, in fact, the page has been turned, and this is an administration that’s doing things differently.”

DiNapoli also lost some of his office’s oversight powers during the pandemic, when Cuomo suspended review of certain state contracts. That was to speed up spending at the height of the public health emergency, Cuomo said at the time.

That move has come under fire over the past two years, most recently when the company of a major donor to Hochul in this year’s race for governor was given a lucrative state contract for COVID-19 testing kits.

Hochul’s office has said the contract was strictly coincidental, and that the company was not given favorable treatment by the state for those donations.

But DiNapoli said the perception of a connection can be just as impactful for the public, and pitched a black-out period during which companies under consideration for a state contract would not be allowed to dole out donations.

“We could argue about what the right time frame is, but I think it would be beneficial, whether it’s 90 days, six months, whatever — where you’re precluded from making contributions,” DiNapoli said. “I just think it would be a more credible way of doing all this.”

That would help prevent potential conflicts of interest between state officials and potential bidders, he said.

DiNapoli is running against Paul Rodriguez, a Republican, in this year’s general election.

Rodriguez has criticized DiNapoli for not being more involved with efforts to combat corruption at New York’s notoriously nefarious state capitol. Rodriguez has said, if elected, he’d use the office as a bully pulpit to push policy.

DiNapoli pushed back, speaking with New York NOW, saying his office has identified misconduct through audits of state agencies and public entities.

The state comptroller’s office doesn’t have the power to arrest or prosecute someone, but they can refer potential criminal violations to another agency with that authority, like a local district attorney or a federal prosecutor.

Beyond that, the audits published by DiNapoli’s office only carry as much weight as the subject’s response, he said. Each review includes a list of recommendations, but the subject isn’t required to implement them. DiNapoli said he’d welcome change in that area.

“Should there perhaps be a bit more teeth where they might be compelled to respond to our audits in a way that is not dismissive?” DiNapoli said. “If we can strengthen the impact our audits could have, I think that would be helpful.”

This year’s general election will be held on Tuesday, November 8.