In 2009, to much fanfare, the Legislature passed – and Governor David Paterson signed into law – the Public Authorities Reform Act. That law came from the recognition that state authorities – including the Environmental Facilities Corporation (EFC) – needed to do their work out of the shadows, answer to the Legislature and be held accountable to the public.
The need for that law has been no clearer than right now as a new report from theAuthorities Budget Office, an independent body created by the Act, documents how Governor Andrew Cuomo’s administration violated state laws and procedures as it attempted to raid federal clean water funds to pay for construction of the New New York Bridge.
The ABO uncovered and identified breakdowns at virtually every turn of the process, including:
- The Cuomo Administration violated the state’s open meetings law.
- The plan was hatched in secret and failed to follow EFC’s own procedures for advancing such a proposal.
- The EFC board abdicated its authority to staff and did not independently engage or provide proper oversight and review.
- The EFC board has fallen into the troubling practice of deferring to staff even when issues are highly controversial or significant in size and cost.
- That there should be have been a public process.
Unfortunately, these concerns are not new or surprising. They were raised exhaustively by advocates, editorial boards and many public officials who took a principled stand to protect the integrity of the Clean Water Act and our communities in need of this funding for sewage and clean water systems. Nonetheless, even today, the Cuomo Administration continues to barrel ahead.
Despite the outright rejection of more than 90% of this raid by the Environmental Protection Agency, the Cuomo Administration is spending undisclosed sums of public monies for an outside law firm to appeal that ruling.
Breakdowns of Oversight
Outside of the realm of the ABO investigation, but just as pertinent, was the breakdown of accountability by the Legislature. After all, moving around a half a billion dollars in public monies should not happen without a public process, questions asked, and answers delivered.
But that’s what happened.
Legislation that would have supported this raid was brought to the floor of the state Senate in the waning days of session by Senator Mark Grisanti. Thankfully, as Senators got word from advocates and staff about its intent, they withdrew their support. While the bill passed by a single vote in the Senate, the Assembly dropped its consideration.
We thank legislators from both houses, on both sides of the aisle, who raised red flags.
But then the Public Authorities Control Board – of which Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senator John DeFrancisco are representatives – approved the loan based on misleading and false information. And in consequent meetings of the Thruway Authority board, contradictory information was provided, and this raid was still approved.
Even today, the Cuomo Administration has failed to produce the loan application which would document the financial plan, and their appeal includes misleading information that implies they have held intensive discussions with advocates about this raid when, in truth, they have done their best to limit access to basic information.
All of this points to a breakdown of accountability.
While we continue our call upon the Cuomo Administration to drop their misguided and costly appeal, and advocates and taxpayers continue to call upon the Governor to be forthright with the public and release his full bridge-financing plan, there is no escaping the need for strengthening the work begun with the Public Authorities Reform Act of 2009.
This ABO report sheds lights on one instance, within one authority. And raises the possibility that violating laws and processes is far more rampant than we might expect.
Environmental Advocates encourages the Legislature to take up authorities reform in 2015 and to fix the broken process at EFC to ensure government is held to the highest of standards, and that public interest is protected.