Sunday July 29, 2012

ALBANY, N.Y.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo is clever, artful, and funny -- but all of that's a secret.

Cuomo put in a memorable performance in May for the annual Legislative Correspondents Show. His short, funny video featuring top aides and shot in the governor's mansion was publicly screened at the annual show in front of hundreds of reporters, lobbyists, politicians and staffers.

You'd love it. But you can't see it. He still won't release the video to the public, like a state secret.

At first, Cuomo's staff said they would provide a copy. That's what politicians routinely, even gleefully, do to show their warmer, self-deprecating side. The send-ups are extremely potent political tools for those like former Mayor Rudy Giuliani confident enough to use them.

Now, nine weeks after an Associated Press request under the state Freedom of Information Law, Cuomo refuses to release his cinematic debut even though it drew good reviews and he made no gaffes.

"We are performing a diligent search for the records you request," a $75,000-a-year lawyer wrote the AP on June 6. A promised update in 20 days never
happened.

All this for a home movie?

These are not earth-shaking actions by Cuomo. But it's about what good government advocates warn is a troubling culture of secrecy that in the long run is bad for policymaking and a disservice to New Yorkers who pay for all
of this.

Perhaps denying the video is force of habit. For nearly two years, Cuomo's administration has been marked as much by secrecy as success.


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Just this month, Cuomo was criticized for pulling back some old files he'd sent to the state archives from his attorney general term after Albany Times Union reporters discovered a memo containing an error. Critics said Cuomo was editing his past, while the state open government chief and former Republican Attorney General Dennis Vacco called it prudent in dealing with investigations.

Also this month, Cuomo responded to a month-old AP request under FOIL by saying the governor has never written an email -- state or personal -- for public business. Instead, he uses an untraceable Blackberry message system. Days later, Cuomo called it a way to prevent hacking.

These practices follow his campaign promise to create the most transparent government in history and his first executive order declaring open government "essential to the maintenance of a democratic society."

Since then, he's negotiated major spending and legislation in a new two-men-in-room style of closed-door meetings with individual legislative leaders. He maintains it's essential to seal deals that often eluded Govs. David Paterson, Eliot Spitzer and George Pataki.

The closed-room deals have yielded legislation that was marked at first with glowing press announcements but then by criticism after being put in practice, including an ethics and lobby reform billed as historic that's had a rocky start. Back-room deals usually circumvent legislative committees, public hearings and true floor debates that can improve measures.

Cuomo has said results, particularly after the gridlock, scandal and overspending of 2008-10, are more important than a more open process that could get in the way of agreements.

In March, New York got a "D" and was ranked 36th in a national study of state government transparency and accountability. A week ago, the Albany alternative weekly, Metroland, wrote that Cuomo has a "Nixonian obsession with enemies and secrecy."

But Cuomo may be at a crossroads halfway through his first term and as he gets listed in polls for the 2016 presidential race.

"We had some urgent problems and he was very effective; he got things done," said Bill Samuels, co-founder of the EffectiveNY think tank and the New Roosevelt good-government group.

But Samuels said Cuomo needs to be more transparent and open, both to get better results based on more input and real public debate and to entice better people to Albany who want to provide a true voice, not a rubber stamp.

Samuels credits Cuomo for holstering late in the session a favorite weapon -- the "message of necessity" -- that he used to rush a closed-door deal into law, with little time to read let alone seriously debate the bill. These were intended for emergencies, not political expediency, and suspend the required three days' review of bills.

In that, Samuels sees hope for more open government, better legislation and a more functional democracy.

"I do not believe he has in his belly any fire for reform," Samuels said. "But he's a practical politician and if on a reform issue -- message of necessity is an example -- he can be convinced that his position is a problem and isn't popular, he will change course. Because he's not a doctrinaire-anything."