Hochul acts to open a government long defined by behind-the-scenes deals
Gov. Kathy Hochul, under pressure from government watch groups, on Thursday released details of a plan to recuse himself from all matters involving Delaware North, the casino and concession company where her husband is a senior executive.
The move is part of a larger initiative by Ms Hochul that includes plans to improve accountability in state agencies and reduce the backlog of requests for public documents. This is the most tangible step to date in his pledge to improve transparency in a state government that has long been marred by backroom deals, cronyism and corruption.
The plan announced Thursday also included recusal provisions for Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin and Karen Persichilli Keogh, Ms Hochul’s main aide.
Ms Hochul, who became governor in August after her predecessor, Andrew M. Cuomo, resigned amid several scandals, said she hoped to restore public confidence in the government. (A misdemeanor sexual misconduct complaint was filed against Mr. Cuomo on Thursday.)
“The changes we are announcing today bring us one step closer to creating the kind of government New Yorkers deserve, and we will continue to build on that progress,” Ms. Hochul, a Democrat from Buffalo, said in a statement.
Ms Hochul took office with potential conflicts of interest, prompting government watchdogs to demand that she create a buffer between her administration and the business relationships of relatives and senior executives.
Her husband, William Hochul, is senior vice president and general counsel of Delaware North, a Buffalo-based company that has numerous government contracts. Among other things, state officials are currently negotiating with the owners of the Buffalo Bills the possible construction of a new football stadium, which could be a boon to the company.
Political observers also raised concerns when Ms Hochul chose Ms Keogh as secretary to the governor – the most powerful unelected post in the state government – because Ms Keogh’s husband is a partner at Bolton St. Johns , one of the most influential lobbying firms in the country. Albany.
Mr Benjamin, a former state senator, owns a stake in Next Point Aquisition Corp., which owns LoanMe, a company that arranges high-interest loans. His wife works for the state housing division.
The recusal plans are specific to Ms. Hochul and her key associates and do not apply more broadly to civil servants. But they could provide a roadmap for others to deal with conflicts as they arise.
Ms. Hochul, for example, has agreed to recuse herself “to the fullest extent of the law” from any government matter or decision-making in which Delaware North is directly involved. Her husband also agreed to recuse himself from any business relationship the company may have in or with the state. The company also pledged not to make political contributions to Ms. Hochul.
Watch groups hailed the initiatives, and the transparent manner in which Ms. Hochul presented them, as a major step towards building public trust.
“She has an unusual degree of conflict of interest and she has taken an unusual step – in a good way – to allay public concerns,” said John Kaehny of Reinvent Albany, one of the groups.
“If they stick to the spirit of this agreement, that will be great,” Kaehny said. “The question is always whether they will? He noted that such extraordinary measures would not need to be taken if the state had a trusted ethics body.
One would expect the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, which was established under Mr Cuomo, to oversee these matters, but it has been widely criticized. Ms Hochul said she wanted to “blow up” the commission and look for something better in its place.
Along with the challenge plan, the broader initiative announced Thursday included the publication of individual agency plans for increased transparency. These plans include commitments to make better use of the state’s open data platform and to overhaul agency websites, including offering more language options.
Some of the proposals appeared to directly address public concerns, such as the Budget Division’s promise to create an online landing page that links to the nearly 40 boards, commissions and councils headquartered by its director, Robert Mujica.
The public documents request process will also be overhauled, with the key change being the removal of a policy dating back to Mr. Cuomo’s tenure that required all responses to be reviewed by governor’s staff. As governor, Cuomo has established strict control over information released by New York agencies, positioning special advisers throughout the state government to report requests deemed potentially inconvenient to the governor.
Ms. Hochul deleted that. Rather, she called for agencies to be proactive in releasing documents that are frequently requested as well as those of public importance as part of an effort to speed up the process of requesting public documents. In addition, the governor said she would consider investments in technology and additional staff to help agencies manage the mountain of backlogs she inherited from Mr. Cuomo.