Capitol scandals raise tough questions for New York governor

Capitol scandals raise tough questions for New York governor

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ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — They were Albany's most powerful men: the governor, the Senate leader and the Assembly speaker. Together, they negotiated billion-dollar budgets and decided which bills passed and which ones didn't.

Now two face federal corruption charges, and the third — Gov. Andrew Cuomo — appears eager to focus on other issues even as he faces questions about his ties to a major real estate firm at the center of the newest scandal to rock the state Capitol.

In recent days he talked about campus sexual assault with U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. He traveled to Buffalo with Cardinal Timothy Dolan to tout an education tax credit. He held briefings at the scene of a nuclear plant transformer fire.

The political crisis in Albany got less attention.

"If the charges are correct, it's deeply disturbing," is what Cuomo said following the arrest of Senate Leader Dean Skelos on charges that he extorted payments for his son from the developer and another business. The Long Island Republican resigned his leadership post Monday.

Skelos' arrest comes after Manhattan Democrat Sheldon Silver stepped down as Assembly speaker in January after he was charged with taking nearly $4 million in payoffs. Both men say they are innocent and are keeping their legislative seats.

In the political language of Albany, the governor, the speaker and the Senate leader are known collectively as the "three men in a room," a nod to the longstanding practice of negotiating the budget and other key pieces of legislation behind closed doors. Silver's arrest came the day after Cuomo referred to Skelos, Silver and himself as the "three amigos" during his budget presentation, which contained a depiction of the three men wearing sombreros.

Millions of dollars in contributions by New York City real estate interests, mainly funneled through LLCs, have been cited in the cases against Silver and Skelos, who received large contributions from Glenwood Management, a New York City real estate firm headed by Leonard Litwin, Cuomo's top donor.

Glenwood has been identified as the New York City company that gave large campaign donations to Skelos using LLCs, allegedly in return for helping continue tax breaks now worth about $1 billion annually to the city's residential developers. Those tax breaks, along with New York City's rent regulations, are up for renewal this year. The complaint against Skelos alleges that he used his influence to pressure a Glenwood executive to arrange payments for his son.

Cuomo received $1 million from limited liability companies tied to Glenwood. Cuomo said recently that he never discussed rent laws with the company. Administration records show he met with Glenwood executives three times to discuss rent regulations in 2011, the last year they were up for renewal.

Cuomo's spokesman said later that the governor simply forgot the meetings.

"I don't believe anyone said Glenwood has done anything wrong," Cuomo said about his connections to the company.

The developer's generous contributions were scrutinized by the anti-corruption commission appointed by Cuomo in 2013 and disbanded a year later. U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara of Manhattan, who is prosecuting Skelos and Silver, took them over.

Glenwood did not return a message seeking comment.

Meanwhile, new efforts to address corruption in state government are stalling.

The governor met with the new leaders of the Assembly and Senate on Wednesday, their first gathering since Sen. John Flanagan was picked to replace Skelos. Flanagan said the meeting focused on the priorities for the rest of the legislative session.

Ethics reform "wasn't one of the topics of discussion," said Speaker Carl Heastie, a Bronx Democrat who replaced Silver.

Polls suggest voters aren't pleased. A Marist College poll released Tuesday found that three-quarters of respondents think corruption has gotten worse in New York in recent years. Cuomo's job performance rating has dropped to 37 percent while ratings for the Assembly and Senate are in the low 20s. Marist pollster Lee Miringoff said voters are looking to Cuomo to address corruption.

"One of the pillars of his campaign was the notion that he would get Albany working again and clean up the mess," Miringoff said. "Now there's this drip, drip, drip reminding voters almost every day about the pervasive corruption in Albany. Of the three men in the room, two have been charged. If you're the third guy it's hard to buffer yourself."

Following Silver's arrest, new rules were passed requiring lawmakers to identify the source of any outside income and, if they are attorneys, disclose the identities of clients. Good-government groups say exceptions in the rules make them only a modest improvement.

Legislation that would close a campaign finance loophole at the center of many corruption scandals appears unlikely to pass. The measure would treat limited liability companies like other companies when it comes to campaign finance. Now they are treated like individuals, allowing LLCs to donate up to $150,000 without identifying actual donors.

The Assembly passed the measure Tuesday, and Cuomo supports it. But the legislation is presumed dead in the Senate, where a committee chairman last week refused to consider it because of an improperly made motion. The chairman, Republican Sen. Michael Ranzenhofer, told The Associated Press that he hadn't read the three-paragraph bill.

"We have very, very many important bills," Ranzenhofer said. "I'm just not an expert in all of them."

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