Photo Credit: Marc Gronich
Hochul updates New Yorkers on Covid-19 pandemic at the RNA Institute, SUNY Albany campus, on Friday, January 14.

New York Governor Kathy Hochul is fending off criticism that she used state vehicles, including aircraft, to combine campaigning for reelection and government business without reimbursing state taxpayers for the portion of trips she spent fundraising.

“No one is required to publicly put out their schedules but we put it out there to make sure the public knows what we’re doing,” Hochul said at a Friday news conference. “We’re going to continue doing that and making sure there are proper reimbursements where it’s necessary. That’s all been done. We’re going to go forward with the renewed sense that we have to restore people’s faith in government.”

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Hochul only released the first 45 days of her schedules although she has been in office for more than four months.

Her Democratic opponents pounced on the opportunity to chastise Hochul for her stumble after she said she would reimburse taxpayers for a total of more than $19,000 for using state aircraft to fly to “private events” during her first 45 days in office.

One definition of ethics is doing the right thing when no one is watching.

“If Kathy Hochul is now saying she didn’t know she was in breach of the long-standing principle that government business be separate from political fundraising, then Kathy Hochul either does not think these regulations apply to her or she doesn’t care enough to set the right example for her administration,” said Congressman Tom Suozzi (D-Glen Cove, Nassau County). “While her campaign staff did an excellent job of promoting her success at fundraising, it looks like her government staff also did an excellent job at hiding the fact that much of this money was raised in private meetings with lobbyists using taxpayer dollars for her travel. Strong-arming lobbyists to contribute to her campaign –and making promises to those who do business with the government in return from campaign contributions – should make every New Yorker wonder what else is Hochul Hiding.

During her State of the State message to the Legislature earlier this month, Hochul proposed several ethics reforms. One proposal stressed her desire to remake the current ethics commission with one that has teeth. During her remarks she hinted that she might have already known about her stumble on ethics.

“None of these changes will fix our government overnight and having these safeguards in place won’t mean those of us in elected office won’t stumble or make honest mistakes,” Hochul said.

This is not the first time a New York governor was caught attempting to combine state business and pleasure with a sports team that has business before the state.

A similar instance happened in 2010. At the time, Governor David Paterson was fined by a now-defunct ethics panel $62,125 for accepting five tickets to a New York Yankees 2009 World Series game while the ball club had business before the state. The fine was imposed 11 days before Paterson was set to leave office.

The ethics panel concluded Paterson knew he had broken the law and then lied about it while under oath. This seemingly trivial ethical misstep could have been avoided had Paterson simply told the truth to the ethics commission. Instead, the situation blew up into a damaging scandal at the end of a challenging stint for Paterson as New York’s chief executive.

“The moral and ethical tone of any organization is set at the top,” said Michael Cherkasky, chairman of the New York State Commission on Public Integrity. “Unfortunately, the governor (Paterson) set a totally inappropriate tone by his dishonest and unethical conduct. Such conduct cannot be tolerated by any New York state employee, particularly our governor.”

Hochul’s misuse of state aircraft included attending a Buffalo Bills game. Similar to Paterson, she followed the axiom, “Do I say, not as I do.” Also reminiscent of Paterson’s days, the Bills are building a new football stadium in Orchard Park, a suburb of Buffalo, where the team currently plays, and needs state funds to make the deal happen.

“As I said on day one, my administration will conduct itself with the highest of ethics. Those are values I subscribe to – transparency and accountability. I’ve told my team to follow the rules,” Hochul said. “In any area where it’s gray and there is a lot of gray area in a ruling that has come out, there’s no gray in our lives. It’s either black or white. Err on the side of doing the right thing…. By putting much-needed reforms in place, we can at least begin to restore public trust by focusing on what really matters to our residents.”

Suozzi said, “Kathy Hochul claimed that ‘openness and transparency’ would be the hallmark of her administration, but the evidence shows it’s been anything but. She’s the same old Albany politician who got caught with her hand in the cookie jar. She must lead by example.”

Suozzi also wants the matter referred to Attorney General Letitia James for her review as a ‘truly independent’ probe.

Suozzi called on Hochul “to reimburse taxpayers for using state aircraft to fly to a Buffalo Bills home game on September 12, 2021, without conducting any official business according to her schedule that was released. On September 12, Hochul flew along with her husband from LaGuardia to Buffalo to attend the Buffalo Bills home opener game. There were no other events on her schedule for the day. She then flew back to New York the following morning. In this case, taxpayers were forced to incur all expenses for her trip to the football game.

“In her first four months in office, Hochul has not disclosed any meetings with lobbyists, despite many of them actively fundraising for her campaign,” Suozzi claimed. “Meanwhile, lobbyists have disclosed over 200 meetings with her office. This has not stopped Hochul from outsourcing her fundraising operation to Albany’s top lobbying firms, raising money at a non-stop pace, and collecting over $125,000 per day.”

New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams (D-Brooklyn), another gubernatorial hopeful, refused to comment on Hochul’s use of state aircraft for trips to fundraisers and vague private meetings that could have been with prospective donors, and the Buffalo Bills game.

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Marc Gronich is news director of Statewide News Service. He also operates the website JBizTechValley.com. He has been covering government and politics since 1981. His Albany Beat column appears monthly in The Jewish Press.