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.

The Prosecution of Speaker Sheldon Silver

Sheldon SilverThe Speaker of the New York State Assembly Sheldon Silver – one of the most powerful politicians in New York State over the past two decades – was arrested today. Silver is being prosecuted for bribes and kickbacks for which he allegedly received about $4 to $5 million in payoffs for “no-show” legal positions. Here is a quick summary of the charges:

  1. Silver persuaded developers doing business with New York State to hire a real estate law firm run by a former aide, and the firm then paid Silver $700,000 in legal fees, despite the fact that he did no legal work for clients.
  2. Silver directed $500,000 in state money to a doctor, who then sent asbestos victims to law firms proving alleged legal positions to Silver. Silver enjoyed $1.4 million in salary and $3.9 million in referral fees at the firms, despite never performing any legal work whatsoever.

We remind our readers that Silver is innocent to proven guilty, but he faces a 35 page, detailed criminal complaint with five counts of violations of federal law. Here is the criminal complaint: Silver Criminal Complaint

The word from Albany today was it was like a “thunderbolt” crashed into the State Assembly. Questions like “will Silver resign” and “who will replace him as speaker” were the topics of every conversation. Silver will get his due process and wage a vigorous defense, so you can expect this prosecution to take some time. And remember Joe Bruno, the New York State Senate leader – he was charged with similar crimes, battled the prosecutors every step of the way and was eventually vindicated. The Silver prosecution will provide interesting legal and political theater in the months and probably years to come.

Jim Maisano
Jim@FreeVoter.com

(Jim serves as a Westchester County Legislator).