Eliot Spitzer’s Responses to Public Integrity Questionnaire for Citywide Candidates

Ten Questions About Public Integrity For Citywide Candidates 2013
Responses from Eliot Spitzer

1. Certain major scandals in New York City government over the years have involved abuse of the contracting system by private vendors. Please describe what reforms, if any, you believe are needed to promote integrity in contracting.

 As we saw with CityTime, abuses in contracting can have massive consequences on the rest of the city. Every dollar lost to fraud is a dollar that doesn’t go into funding schools, public transportation and other vital programs New Yorkers rely on.   As a financial watchdog, auditing government spending is one of the Comptroller’s chief responsibilities, and I would use those powers more vigorously in service of integrity in contracting.   The Charter provides:

The comptroller shall audit the operations and programs of city agencies to determine whether funds are being expended or utilized efficiently and economically and whether the desired goals, results or benefits of agency programs are being achieved. The comptroller shall investigate the processing of vouchers and the payment of bills by city agencies and shall audit agency compliance with applicable procedures in procuring goods, services and construction.

NYC Charter § 93(e).

The Comptroller also has authority to require agencies to put in place proper controls:

[T]he agencies shall prepare and audit vouchers before payment, prepare and audit payrolls, receive and inspect goods and forward vouchers to the comptroller for payment. The comptroller shall prescribe methods, with which all agencies shall comply, for preparing and auditing vouchers before payment, preparing payrolls, and recording, reporting and accounting in the several agencies and shall conduct reviews to assure compliance. The comptroller may suspend or withdraw the authority delegated to an agency pursuant to this subdivision (1) upon a finding of abuse of such authority or on a determination that the agency lacks adequate internal controls to exercise such authority properly and (2) upon the approval of the audit committee after the agency has had an opportunity to be heard on this matter.

NYC Charter § 93(h).

The basic tools for fighting procurement fraud are well known:  Clear contract language, careful due diligence on vendors, ensuring bidder responsibility, and auditing invoices to see whether goods and services paid for have actually been delivered.  Those tools require an independent and proactive comptroller in order to be used most effectively. The city cannot afford to wait for fraudulent activity to grow out of control before addressing the issue.

As Comptroller, I will use the audit function aggressively, and work in tandem with others charged with preventing, detecting, and punishing procurement fraud, including inspectors general and prosecutors’ offices.

2. Other scandals have involved agencies that conduct inspections and issue permits, such as the Building Department and the Health Department. Please describe what reforms, if any, you believe are needed to reduce integrity risk in these areas.

One can look back decades and see corruption scandals in permitting and inspections.  The very nature of the relationship between government and a private entity creates opportunities for (a) extortion by an inspector threatening to use government power to punish an innocent applicant, or (b) bribery by a private entity seeking a license or permit to which it is not entitled.  The problem is well known, has been well studied, and has been the subject of law enforcement initiatives over many years. 

So in this sphere, reform is, perhaps, less necessary than constant vigilance and good execution.  Focus and persistence will yield results.  And here, as in so many things in this millennium, some of the new opportunities come with technology.  Greed has not changed, but the tools for detecting crime have.  Citizens themselves now often record improper behavior by government officials – with technology as ubiquitous as cell phones.  And steps such as equipping inspectors’ vehicles with GPS devices can allow far closer monitoring of government inspectors than was true 20 years ago.  (In choosing where to deploy technology, of course, costs that must always be weighed are privacy interests.)  It is part of the Comptroller’s mandate to study and recommend technological advances in the service of government efficiency:

The comptroller shall also undertake studies, including cost benefit analyses, of: . . . (ii) the adoption and use of new technology by city agencies to promote their economy and efficiency, and periodically report the findings and recommendations of such studies to the mayor, the council and the public.

Charter § 93(e).

As Comptroller, I will do just that.  We will study how technology can help battle the economic incentives for corrupt government behavior and help turn those studies into on the ground initiatives.

3. Another area of frequent concern involves the relationship between public officials and their private business ventures or their business relationships with nonprofit and community organizations. Please describe what reforms, if any, you believe are needed to reduce integrity risk in these areas.

As Attorney General, I launched investigations into Not-For-Profit organizations, including against now-convicted former State Senator Pedro Espada and his misuse of the Soundview Health Center. 

There is simply no doubt that when government officials wear two hats, the potential for conflicts of interest can arise.  The best cure here, as is true so often in government, is more sunshine.

4. Have you developed specific policies and procedures in your own career, whether in the public or private sector and including in your current campaign, to promote integrity in any office or organization you have led?

Through my career in government, I held those who worked for me to a high standard of integrity.  I staffed the best attorney general’s office in the nation.  I hired lawyers of high ethics who had been trained in the best prosecutors offices in the world, I demanded the best from them, and they ran an office of integrity and excellence.

But as all New York knows, I myself failed to do what was expected of me.  I took responsibility then for my failings, and I resigned as governor of this great state. 

I cannot undo what I have done.  But I can continue to insist on ethics and integrity as a lodestar, and I will continue to learn from my own serious mistake.

5. Do you believe it is important for a citywide elected official to establish specific ethical standards and practices for his or her own direct reports? If so, please describe what standards and practices you would establish, and how would you communicate and enforce them?

Yes, but it shouldn’t be limited to direct reports. Standards should be set across entire agencies and/or departments.

6. Do you believe any legislature measures, on a City or State level, are needed to improve ethical conduct in city government and, if so, what legislative changes would you propose?

We need to reform the entire process of procurement, including asset management, to ensure greater transparency.

7. Are there specific measures you would take on your own authority to improve ethical conduct in city government? By “on your own authority” we mean, for example, actions that the Mayor can take by executive order of that the Comptroller or Public Advocate can take as a matter of office policy. If so, please specify what measures you would take.

One of the fundamental missions of the Comptroller is to be the City’s auditor, a textbook control and anticorruption function.  I will use those powerful tools in the service of driving waste and corruption out of City government.  There are few “new” frauds.  History teaches us that most flavors of frauds on the fisc have happened many times before – and indeed the questions that this committee has been asked to identify specific types of frauds that have been perpetrated on the city time and again.

Thus, on the authority of the Comptroller, I will tackle fraud using the same blueprint that we did at the Attorney General’s Office, and at the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office before that.  We will identify structural risks, that is, situations like the “inspector” cases you have posited where the incentives create corruption dangers.  We will vigorously do our duty and audit those risk areas, focusing on controls, prevention, and detection.  We will work with others – the Mayor, the Commission of DOI, the Public Advocate, the Council, the District Attorneys, and good government groups.  There is much room for talented persons of good will to link arms in this fight. 

In my view, those of us who believe in the good that government can do have a special obligation to fight corruption.  If you support increased spending on education, then you have a special duty to make sure that the tax dollars really truly go for teachers’ salaries or for bricks and mortar for new schools – not into the pockets of unscrupulous government vendors or corrupt officials.  Government waste and corruption are the enemies of a progressive agenda, and I will work tirelessly to root them out.

8. Does your current campaign have written policies and procedures on ethics matters? If so, please provide a copy.

We are running a positive campaign. We hold our campaign staff to very high standards, although we haven’t put it in writing, our policies and procedures on ethics matters have been communicated directly and consistently to staff.

9. Would you recommend any changes in the City’s public campaign finance system and, if so, what are those changes? In addition to describing those changes, please provide us with any proposals you have that would (a) curb the actual or perceived influence of campaign contributions on City government decision-making, or (b) make sure that City decisions are fully based on merit rather than contributions or cronyism.

While we need to constantly review the system, it has worked reasonably well.

10.  Do you favor any significant reforms at the key city agencies responsible for public integrity matters, including the Department of Investigation, the Conflict of Interest Board or the current system of Inspectors General? If so, please describe.

The Department of Investigation and the current system of Inspectors General have appropriate powers and mandate. As Comptroller, I would work closely with DOI, OIG, and COIB. In order to manage these relationships effectively, it will take my leadership that has a demonstrated record of fearlessness and credibility. My fearlessness to conduct investigations into matters of public integrity and my willingness to take on entrenched political power will provide results.

Part of the job as Comptroller is to audit city agencies, and to make sure that these offices are doing their jobs, the city’s dollars are being spent wisely, and our fiscal goals are being met. As Comptroller, I would look into these agencies to make sure that they are being run efficiently.