By John Verni
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.
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.
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.