Albany backs less state flying; After Spitzer-Bruno controversy, 3 bills in play would limit when politicians could use government craft

Aug. 14, 2007

ALBANY - Despite the partisan rancor, many Democrats and Republicans here agree the "Choppergate" scandal exposed problems in the use of state planes and the State Police by politicians that must be addressed.

Four bills have been introduced in the Legislature since the July 23 release of a bombshell report by the attorney general. Another bill is being drafted, with several more expected.

Most of the bills would place stricter limits on the use of state helicopters, which was at the crux of the plot by aides to Gov. Eliot Spitzer to discredit Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno (R-Brunswick). And reformers now are optimistic that their calls over decades to end state-funded flights to fundraisers and other political events finally will be heeded.

"These proposed pieces of legislation are a strong reaction to the current scandal," said Christina Bottego, program director for Common Cause/New York.

She and others hope lawmakers will go beyond state aircraft and police to establish tighter controls over use of all government resources.

The likelihood of sweeping change is greater, experts said, because Choppergate is Albany's biggest scandal in years, and Democrat Spitzer wants to restore his reformer image.

Pols' different perspectives

"The events of this summer present the most serious challenge to the integrity of New York government that we have faced in a long, long time," said Sen. George Winner Jr. (R-Elmira).

On the other end of the political spectrum, Sen. Thomas Duane (D-Manhattan) said, "There is much to be done to reform state government," including campaign finance reform.

The pair agreed on little else Thursday during a meeting of the Senate investigations committee, which Winner heads. Duane is its top Democrat.

Both are pushing bills limiting the use of state aircraft to varying degrees.

Winner's measure prohibits travel for "political purposes" by state officials, lawmakers or their employees, even if the trip includes some state business - as allowed under current rules.

Because Winner's bill doesn't define "political purposes," Duane said it is too vague. He recommends barring officials or their employees from the state fleet unless "the majority of flight expenses and time are for official business."

Duane's bill gives the governor guidelines on approving requests for planes, and calls for the state comptroller to do a yearly audit of fleet usage.

For these measures to be effective, however, they must clearly define what is permissible, said Blair Horner, public integrity adviser to Attorney General Andrew Cuomo. "The aircraft should be used for public business only."

"Bright-line standards"

Texas and South Dakota have such "bright-line standards," but most states are like New York in permitting trips that mix state business with personal activities.

Cuomo aides also said he should be given subpoena power to pursue government corruption up to and including the governor's office. Winner is writing a bill to do just that.

But the inspector general's top lawyer, Nelson Sheingold, said she was capable of policing state agencies and gubernatorial staff despite being a Spitzer appointee. Sheingold added the Choppergate probe was unique because it involved a conflict of interest: the inspector general's boss, Richard Baum, received e-mail about the Bruno plot.

Addressing another conflict of interest, Sen. Michael Nozzolio (R-Fayette) is pushing a bill to create a term of office for the State Police superintendent. Nozzolio wants to provide more independence after Cuomo's report found the acting superintendent, Preston Felton, was pressured into helping the rogue Spitzer aides.

Superintendents now serve at the governor's pleasure with no set term. Spokesmen for Spitzer and the State Police declined to comment.

Bottego of Common Cause urged lawmakers to "establish bright-line standards beyond the use of simply state aircraft and other vehicles, and establish parameters of use around any resource which has the potential to be misused."

'Choppergate' bills

State lawmakers are pushing remedies to problems raised by the scandal. Here's what the bills would do:

S6434, introduced by Sen. Michael Nozzolio (R-Fayette)

Establish a three-year term for the State Police superintendent, allowing for more independence from the governor

S6438, introduced by Sen. George Winner Jr. (R-Elmira)

Prohibit use of state aircraft for "political purposes" by state officials, lawmakers or their employees, even if the trip includes some state business

Punish violators with fines of up to $40,000 plus the cost of the trip, and if prosecuted and convicted, up to $10,000 and a maximum of 1 year in prison

S6442, introduced by Sen. Thomas Duane (D-Manhattan)

Prohibit use of state aircraft by state officials or their employees unless "the majority of flight expenses and time are for official business"

Provide guidelines for the governor's office to determine whether to approve requests for state planes

Require a yearly public audit of the use of state aircraft

Assembly bill, introduced by Assemb. Tim Gordon (I-Bethlehem)

Prohibit use of state planes, cars and boats by state employees for any purpose other than "state business"

Require reimbursement in cases of private use

Punish violators with fines of up to $10,000

Draft Senate bill, to be introduced by Winner

Direct the state Inspector General to refer investigations of the governor's office to the state attorney general

Grant subpoena power to the attorney general in such cases

- Compiled by Albany Bureau Chief James T. Madore