Scott Stringer's Responses to Public Integrity Questionnaire for Citywide Candidates

Ten Questions About Public Integrity For Citywide Candidates 2013
Responses from Scott Stringer

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.

The Comptroller is not only responsible for setting the prevailing wage, but also for enforcing it as well.  All too often, contractors skirt our wage laws, hurting working class New Yorkers who struggle to support their families. As Comptroller, I’ll redouble our efforts to root out wage fraud and flag contractors with a history of shortchanging workers in the City’s centralized “VENDEX” system.

In addition, I’ll do more to ensure that contracts never run off the rails, as we’ve seen so often in recent years, whether with CityTime or the 9-1-1 system. By getting involved earlier in the contract drafting process and sending staff to pre-bid conferences and establishing “triggers” for contracts that receive upward adjustments, the Comptroller can work with agencies to highlight potentially problematic contract terms before they lead to ballooning costs.

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.

As Borough President, I have repeatedly called for the Department of Buildings to spin off its enforcement unit into a separate Office of Inspections.1 The DOB is responsible for both approving and policing building construction and maintenance. These conflicting roles under one roof do not serve the public well. Indeed, perhaps as a result of its wide-ranging mandate, DOB struggles to promptly respond to reported violations. As the 2012 Mayor’s Management Report showed, the average response time of DOB inspectors to non-emergencies grew by nearly two weeks to 41 days, despite a decrease in the number of complaints received. In addition, the number of accidents, injuries and fatalities rose at construction sites.

An independent office of inspections would address the consistent need for stronger enforcement, while allowing the DOB to focus on the “business of business”, working with entrepreneurs to get their initiatives off the ground and helping small businesses expand.

Ultimately, inspections and permitting must be applied equally to all New Yorkers. There can’t be once set of rules for the well connected and another for the mom and pop shop. All businesses and individuals having business before the City must be treated equally, with honesty and respect.

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.

I believe public officials have the responsibility to be open and honest with the public about the source of their income. That’s why I released five years of tax returns as part of this campaign. Indeed, officials should be required to disclose outside income to the City so that the voting public is aware of potential conflicts of interest and to improve accountability in their decision-making as policy makers.

In addition, we’ve seen time and time again how the member items process can be abused to funnel money toward nonprofits and other ventures run by elected officials or their friends and family. I have long believed that the member items system is broken and that we either need to mend it or end it. In 2011, I issued a groundbreaking report showing that member items are distributed without regard to the needs of our communities and are often the product of political favoritism.2

As Comptroller, I’ll continue to scrutinize the member items process as long as it lasts to ensure that all New Yorkers understand how their tax dollars are spent and why.

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?

As an Assemblymember, I stood up to my own party—along with the Brennan Center for Justice and other progressive advocates—to end empty seat voting in Albany—one of the greatest ethics reforms in that chamber in decades.

As Borough President, I created a merit-based process for community board appointments, replacing a system that was fraught with patronage and left boards without the diversity and energy they needed to succeed. In addition, I insulated the BP’s community grants process from politics and made it wholly transparent through my TranspareNYC initiative.3

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?

Transparency is always the first principle when it comes to potential conflicts of interest. As noted above, I have revealed my tax returns and will always be transparent about any potential conflicts of interest out of an abundance of caution. I will also communicate to my staff that I expect them to comport themselves with the highest level of integrity as well, recusing themselves from any audit/contract/report that they or their family has a pecuniary interest in.

The Comptroller is the City’s chief fiscal watchdog and as such, it is essential that the public believe that the information coming out of the office is non-partisan, apolitical analysis. This is important not just for the public’s trust in the office, but also for the broader capital markets, which must trust our financial figures in order to appropriately assess risk and maintain our “AA” bond rating.

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?

NYC Charter Section 2602(j) requires that the City’s Conflicts of Interest Board periodically recommend to the Council potential revisions to Chapter 68 of the Charter, the City's conflicts of interest (ethics) law. The latest proposed amendment concerns insulating the budget of the COIB from political interference. I support this measure as a way to ensure that the COIB is not manipulated by the political process and has sufficient resources to do the important work of rooting out fraud and abuse by elected officials.

I also believe that strong campaign finance laws are central to ethical government. Citizens United blew a huge hole in our nation’s campaign finance laws. However, NYC remains a model for cities and states alike in boosting the value of small donors and capping spending to ensure all candidates have an opportunity to have their message heard. I strongly support similar reform at the State level, as well as legislation requiring shadow groups to disclose their donors.

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.

The best way for the Comptroller to improve ethics is to promote a well-functioning, efficient, transparent government.

I’ll dramatically improve transparency in the setting of prevailing wages, putting all relevant information online so that the public can understand the process.

I’ll work with trustees to increase public disclosure about pension fund assets so that New Yorkers know exactly where our $140 billion is invested.

And I’ll work to maintain the ban on equity placement agents and expand the ban where needed to eliminate costly middlemen that have been in the middle of “pay to play” scandals.

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

We maintain the highest ethical standards at Stringer 2013, which includes full participation in the city’s campaign finance program.

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.

As I noted above, I believe the NYC campaign finance system is the finest in the country and I am proud to once again be a participant in the system this year. Despite having a terrific system, we should always be on the lookout for ways to make it better.  For instance, while individuals who do business with the City face significant restrictions on their ability to donate money, they are free to “bundle” cash for candidates without limit.  Moreover, campaigns are not required to disclose which of their bundlers are also on the Doing Business Database.

While the State system remains in far greater need of reform (from public financing to lower contribution/expenditure limits to mandatory disclosure of bundled contributions), we should not rest on our laurels here in NYC. Citizens United may have dealt a serious blow to campaign finance reform, but the combination of sunlight and public matching funds can go a long way toward increasing public confidence in government and ensuring that decisions are made on principle not patronage.

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.

Unlike my opponent, I am a strong supporter of the Community Safety Act, which will create an independent Inspector General for the New York City Police Department. If the FBI, CIA, FDNY, and all other City agencies benefit from IGs, then certainly the NYPD can and will as well.