The Farce of Ethics Reforms in Albany

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By John Verni

The arrest of the Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver for enriching himself with $4,000,000 due to his position is the latest in a long line of corruption originating from our state capitol.  Only in Albany would the leading proposal to address these misdeeds be to increase the pay of our lawmakers.

So let’s go through it. The reasoning is that our lawmakers are abusing their positions of power because they are not getting paid enough and that if we would just pay them more of the taxpayers’ money they will stop abusing their power and stop taking money from special interests.  If we just limit our state legislators outside income and make the state legislature their only job, there will be no more temptation to abuse their power. Really?  Is that what we are going with?

Generally our society addresses misdeeds with some sort of punishment to serve as a deterrent.  Some of the other suggested reforms include: 1) loss of pension benefits upon conviction of a crime to deter misbehavior; 2) term limits, at least for the leaders, to diffuse the concentration of power in a few; or 3) making the legislative sessions shorter and the job is truly part-time so that the legislators can have other careers and not rely on their legislative salary to support themselves and come to their work as true citizen-lawmakers.  These all make more sense.

Sheldon Silver was paid $121,000 per year as the Assembly Speaker. If we as taxpayers paid Sheldon Silver more, say $200,000 per year, would he have not reached for the $4,000,000 from special interests? What number would do it? $250,000? $300,000? $500,000? Shelly, what number would make you stop?

Corruption is about an abuse of power. It is not about making ends meet.  Corruption is about arrogance, not economic hardship.  Lord knows that the judiciary is not paid that well, but our judges are not being carted away at same alarming rate as our state legislators.

Our state legislators will have to decide between these suggested reforms to regulate their own actions. Which reform do you think they will reach for?

John Verni is host of “Stuck in the Middle”, a local radio show on WVOX discussing politics from “middle of the road.” John is an attorney, a former assistant district attorney in Westchester County, and a senior legal correspondent for WVOX.

Proposed Cap On Outside Income For NYS Legislators Is Misguided

NYS CapitolI’m all for ethics reform and understand how Sheldon Silver and others abuse power, but the recent proposal in the NY State Senate to cap outside income at $12,000 doesn’t make sense. They are missing the point. The NY State Legislature is a part-time job. They are only in session for six months each year and in some weeks they are only in Albany for two days. The system was designed for citizen-legislators. You are supposed to have outside income from a real job in the real world, and then bring that experience to your legislative duties. The salary is $79,500 and with a cap they can only make $91,500 (plus possible stipends). It’s hard to raise a family in Westchester, Nassau or Manhattan with that salary – try putting a few kids through college.

If this “reform” passes, who will run for State Senate or State Assembly? You can expect a lot of wealthy candidates who don’t need to work hard every day like the rest of us. It will close the door to middle class people and those in the private sector – the exact kind of people we need in our State Legislature. Unfortunately, we already have too many legislators in Albany who fail to grasp that New York is the highest taxed, least business friendly and most over-regulated state in the country. The actions of our state legislators have damaged job creation and economic opportunity and caused tens of millions of New Yorkers to flee our state in the past 20 years.

This “reform” is misguided, and we should hope it’s defeated, but let’s also hope they approve more thoughtful reforms that actually crack down on the corrupt schemes like those of Sheldon Silver or other legislators recently convicted of crimes.

Jim Maisano
Jim@FreeVoter.com

(Jim serves as a Westchester County Legislator).

Trust in the Time of Silver

Sheldon Silver CapitolBy Noam Bramson

I had one conversation with Shelly Silver. It was 2002. I’d just won a Democratic primary for the New York State Assembly in which the Speaker had backed my opponent. Meeting Mr. Silver at his office in lower Manhattan, I made an pitch for his support in the November general. The pitch fell short, and, two months later, so did my campaign. In retrospect, I dodged a bullet — much happier serving as mayor of New Rochelle than I would have been as a legislator in Albany.

Given this tenuous connection, I can’t really claim that the news of the Speaker’s arrest on corruption charges hit me in any personal way. But I still find the whole thing horribly upsetting.

Time to insert the usual caveats. In America, we are innocent until proven guilty. The Speaker has been accused, not convicted. He is entitled to his day in court. And it’s a good idea to suspend judgment on any subject until you’ve heard both sides. Maybe when everything is aired out, things won’t look so bad.

But, man, they sure look bad right now. If even a fraction of the U.S. Attorney’s claims are accurate, the Speaker constructed and concealed a web of business and legal relationships aimed at converting his public position into personal riches.

No comment is needed on the self-evident illegality, immorality, and general awfulness of the alleged arrangement – all that’s obvious. What concerns me even more is that episodes like this inevitably tarnish the whole enterprise of government. They feed a widespread perception that legislatures, city halls, and executive mansions are populated by crooks, that public action is routinely warped by the hidden motive of private gain, and that politicians as a breed are congenital liars.

When basic trust is gone, why bother voting? Why care about public debates? Why allow yourself to be inspired? It’ll only make the inevitable disappointment that much more painful.

So let me mount a brief, heartfelt defense of my chosen profession, during a week when it really needs one.

This is not a naive, blind defense; human failings are rampant in politics, like in every other field. At one time or another, I have been angry with, exasperated by, or directed fantasies of minor injury toward just about every politician I know personally. (Those feelings are surely mutual.)

But many are truly admirable in their character, intelligence, drive, and ability. And even the clunkers who may be dumb as posts, or timid as mice, or abrasive as sandpaper, are almost always in politics because they really believe in something. They toil away in mainly unglamorous positions, often making financial or family sacrifices, because they have a rough sense, sometimes justified, sometimes deluded, that they can make a positive contribution.

And the overwhelming majority, from the most talented to the least, are honest.

It’s admittedly hard to tell from the headlines, especially out of Albany, but political corruption of the cash-in-envelope variety is rare, probably rarer today than at any time in American history. (The perfectly legal, institutional corruption of the campaign finance system is another story.)

Does this somehow excuse or mitigate the instances of corruption that do exist? Not for a second. In fact, the broader damage done to public confidence makes these corrupt practices even more contemptible. Throw the book at ‘em.

My plea is simply this: leave some room for trust. It can be cautious, it can be provisional, it can be limited to those who have proven worthy. But, somehow, make a place for it. Trust is worth the risk of disappointment. And the collapse of trust is a much bigger threat to our Republic than a hundred sleazy pols on the take.

Noam Bramson is the Mayor of New Rochelle, New York.

Arrogance In Albany: The State of Corruption in New York

By John Verni

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NYS Capitol

British historian Lord Acton once said, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. Unfortunately, such is the state of affairs in our state capitol. Our Empire State is governed by a group of corrupt career politicians that have become so self-serving and arrogant that they believe they are above the law. Nothing is beyond the reach of corruption in Albany, and as recent events have shown, that includes the very commission set up to root out corruption.
A Corrupt Game of Musical Chairs
The corruption in Albany is so rampant and commonplace that most of our statewide officials owe their positions to the corruption of others. The Albany insiders seem to be playing a game of corrupt musical chairs where one member loses his seat in shame only to be replaced by another Albany insider. The music never changes, the chairs get rearranged, but the players remain the same. So here is a primer on Albany’s Corruption Musical Chairs – your very own “Cheat Sheet”.
The three top jobs in Albany are Governor, the guy running the State; the Comptroller, the guy watching our money; and the Attorney General, the guy making sure it is all legal.
Our present Governor is Andrew Cuomo who came to power on a promise of “cleaning up Albany”. At the time of Andrew Cuomo’s election, several members of the legislature were already under investigation, indicted or convicted. Former Governor David Paterson himself was seen as so ineffective and ethically challenged that he could not be re-elected. Paterson had admitted to personal ethical lapses involving cocaine use and having an extra-marital affair with a state worker. At the end of his time as Governor, Paterson was embroiled in a scandal in which he called the victim of sexual abuse by one of his key staffers and coaxed her not to proceed in court against the staffer – hardly the actions of a Democratic Governor supposedly sensitive to sexual harassment in the workplace.
Former Governor David Paterson, who is the son of former State Senator Basil Paterson from Manhattan, became a State Senator in his own right from Manhattan, then became the Lieutenant Governor, and then became the Governor himself when Governor Eliot Spitzer had to resign due to a corruption scandal involving the hiring of prostitutes.
Former Governor Eliot Spitzer was the former Attorney General who made a name for himself cleaning up Wall Street as the “Sheriff of Wall Street” and became Governor on the promise of cleaning up Albany, only to be found breaking the law himself by hiring high-priced prostitutes.
Our present Comptroller, the guy who is supposed to be watching our money, is Thomas DiNapoli, who is a former Assemblyman from Long Island, who became Comptroller when former Comptroller Alan Hevesi, who himself was a former Assemblyman, was caught accepting bribes from people who wanted to be paid to help him watch our money. Alan Hevesi was prosecuted by Andrew Cuomo, who was the Attorney General at the time and used that conviction as proof that he would end the “pay-to-play” mentality in Albany.
Our present Attorney General Eric Schneiderman was a State Senator from Manhattan who became Attorney General when Andrew Cuomo, who was the Attorney General at the time, decided to run for Governor on the promise of cleaning up Albany, when Eliot Spitzer, who ran for and won as Governor on the same promise of cleaning up Albany got caught breaking the law, and his ethically challenged Lieutenant Governor, David Paterson, became Governor, and then got caught in his own scandal and decided not to run.
And the drum beat of corruption has not stopped.
Corrupting the Corruption Commission
Now Governor Andrew Cuomo, who is the son of former Governor Mario Cuomo, is accused of corrupting the anti-corruption commission he set up to clean up Albany by telling the commission who it could and could not investigate.
Governor Cuomo had set up the Committee to Investigate Public Corruption to great fanfare and expectation with the promise of “cleaning up Albany”. The Governor asked several district attorneys, the top law enforcement officials in their respective counties of New York, to serve on the Commission.
The Commission had as two of its three co-chairs, William Fitzpatrick, the District Attorney of Syracuse, and Kathleen Rice, the District Attorney of Nassau County. Fitzpatrick and Rice were appointed by Governor Cuomo and deputized by Attorney General Schneiderman to look into any wrongdoing by the State Senators, of which Schneiderman had been one, or by the Assembly members, of which Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli and his predecessor Alan Hevesi had been members. There had been many recent corruption scandals in the state legislature, the State Senate and Assembly, involving all kinds of criminality ranging from members of the legislature embezzling public funds for their own benefit ; to the paying of hush money to cover-up sexual harassment of legislative staffers by members of the legislature ; to domestic violence by members of the legislature; to outright attempts to buy elections.
In setting up the Commission to Investigate Public Corruption, Governor Cuomo promised that the Commission would be “totally independent”. At the time, Governor Cuomo stated, the Commission could investigate anyone – “me [the Governor], the Lieutenant Governor, the Comptroller, the Attorney General, any State Senator, any Assemblyman”. In order to give this Moreland Commission more teeth, the Governor had the commissioners deputized by Attorney General Eric Schneiderman as Assistant Attorney Generals. Governor Cuomo knew the importance of deputizing the commissioners under the Attorney General’s Office because he had been the Attorney General himself – the guy in charge of making sure it is all legal – the guy who had prosecuted others in the past for public corruption.
Now it has come to light that Governor Cuomo’s Commission to Investigate Public Corruption was not so independent at all. After a three month investigation by the New York Times they reported that they “found that the governor’s office deeply compromised the panel’s work, objecting whenever the commission focused on groups with ties to Mr. Cuomo or on issues that might reflect poorly on him.” When questioned by the New York Times, the Governor’s office released a 13 page statement that took the position that despite his earlier assurances that even he could be investigated, “a commission appointed by and staffed by the executive cannot investigate the executive. It is a pure conflict of interest and would not pass the laugh test.” The only laugh is the statement itself, which belies the arrogance that pervades Albany.
Immediately after the revelations in the Times article, Governor Cuomo cancelled his public appearances for a few days as he pondered how he would respond to this expose’. Rather than the expected announcement that his chief aide, Larry Schwartz, the instrument of the interference, had “resigned” and had acted beyond the authority granted to him by his boss, Governor Cuomo extended his arrogant flourish with a pronouncement that the anti-corruption commission had been a “phenomenal success.” Only in Albany can you get caught red-handed and then claim victory for having a red hand.
The revelations that the Governor interfered with his own corruption-fighting commission seems to confirm what many Albany observers had expected from the very start of this Commission – that the Governor had set up the Commission to pressure the legislature to allow him to push his social agenda; pass an on-time budget to demonstrate his effectiveness; promote fiscally conservative measures to solidify a perception as a tax-fighting crusader; and allow him to paint a narrative of working with both Democrats and Republicans to become the type of transcendent “uniter” that we need as our President down in Washington. So after the passage of his fourth straight on-time budget, several liberal-endearing legislative triumphs, and the passage of some lukewarm “ethics reforms”, Governor Cuomo declared victory and closed the Commission. The legislature was happy because the Commission would stop prying around in their personal transgressions and financial shenanigans and they could get back home and campaign for re-election – a cycle that conveniently has returned close to 100% of the incumbents to office every two years for the last 50 years.

John Verni is the host of “Stuck in the Middle”, a local radio show on WVOX discussing politics from a “middle of the road”, moderate perspective. John is an attorney, a former assistant district attorney in Westchester County, and a senior legal correspondent for WVOX. He hopes this article helped you keep track of the corrupt state of New York politics and shed some light on the upcoming elections.