With the reconviction of former State Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and the sentencing of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver in July, we are left with the lingering question of why the State Legislature refuses to pass meaningful anti-corruption legislation.
It’s high time that lawmakers address the corruption within their own ranks.
Since 2009, 18 state lawmakers have been convicted of crimes ranging from embezzlement and fraud to bribery and perjury. According to a 2016 Politifact report, there have been 30 corruption cases involving state officials since 2005. The report noted that New York has the grim distinction of having one of the worst corruption records in the nation, outstripping most other states by a fair margin. Further illustrating this, Skelos was the fifth straight Senate leader to be handed corruption charges.
Now more than ever, it’s clear that Albany is rife with shady backroom deals, with many (though not all) lawmakers exploiting their positions to enrich themselves, their families and friends. Various theories have been floated as to why New York has historically been such a hotbed for corruption, including a political culture that treats misuse of official positions and public funds as business as usual.
After the sentencing of former State Sen. Shirley Huntly in 2013, National Public Radio reporter Alan Greenblatt, drawing on expert opinions and studies, wrote that single-party dominance in most Assembly and Senate districts, as well as the constant hunt for campaign funds, had contributed to unchecked pay-to-play schemes and a general lack of competition in elections.
Another 2013 report, by the New York Public Interest Research group, revealed that the state saw nearly 104,000 campaign finance law violations in the two years preceding the study.
Despite all of this, few measures have been passed to address the culture of corruption, and a 2015 report by the Center for Public Integrity ranked New York 31st in the country in anti-corruption legislation and slapped it with a D- score. The report also ranked the state 49th in electoral oversight.
Critics have proposed several measures to address the issue. State Sen. Todd Kaminsky, a Democrat from Long Beach and a former federal prosecutor, has put forth and supported proposals such as term limits, a full-time State Legislature (it is only part-time now), a prohibition on gifts and a raft of campaign finance reforms. Kaminsky should know what he’s talking about. As a prosecutor, he successfully tried another former Senate majority leader, an assemblyman and a member of Congress on corruption charges.
Kaminsky has also proposed legislation that would make it illegal for elected officials to lie to local law enforcement. “We make it very hard for prosecutors to go for local corruption,” he told the Herald. “We need to give them the power to charge people for lying to them.”
Any and all of these measures could go a long way toward addressing Albany’s swamp of bad behavior, and there is plenty of blame to go around as to why none has passed. New York’s fractious Legislature has difficulty approving even the most innocuous of bills, passing about 2,500 bills of the 20,000 that are annually proposed — or roughly 12.5 percent.
This leads to a largely secretive process of getting things done at the state level, with many measures passed through the annual budget process or deals made by the governor and the leaders of the two houses — the so-called “three men in a room.”
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has much to answer for as well. In 2013, he formed the Moreland Commission to investigate public corruption, and it quickly got to work, issuing subpoenas to a media firm with ties to the Cuomo administration. The governor’s office ordered the subpoenas rescinded, and Cuomo abruptly ended the commission only nine months into its 18-month life, defending the action as a proper use of his executive powers. Then U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara continued the commission’s unfinished investigations, leading to the indictments of Skelos and Silver.
While many elected officials have failed us time and again, voters need to tell their state lawmakers that anti-corruption measures are of paramount importance. Contact your local legislators and let them know that. For a complete list of those legislators, go to liherald.com.