Top NY politician's arrest prompts calls for ethics overhaul
Jan. 23, 2015
ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — There was the assemblyman who took a bribe from a carnival promoter. The former Senate leader accused of using envelopes stuffed with cash to grease his bid for New York City mayor. Or the one who went to prison for looting his own taxpayer-subsidized health clinics.
Now add Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver to the list of New York legislators facing criminal charges. The Manhattan Democrat who has reigned over the backrooms of Albany for more than 20 years was arrested Thursday on federal charges that he took nearly $4 million in payoffs and kickbacks. He is the sixth legislative leader to face criminal charges in the past six years.
Despite years of scandals, Albany has been slow to clean up its act. Government reform advocates say Silver's arrest shows why Gov. Andrew Cuomo and other leaders must do more to tighten loose ethics rules and rein in the influence of money in politics.
Since 2000, 28 New York lawmakers have left office because of criminal or ethical issues, according to an analysis by Citizens Union. Silver and three others remain in office while they fight criminal charges.
"The men and women of the FBI and of my office still subscribe to the quaint view that no one is above the law — no matter who you are, who you know, or how much money you have," said U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara in announcing the charges against the 70-year-old legislative leader. "And so, our unfinished fight against public corruption continues. Stay tuned."
Cuomo has long talked about the need to "clean up the legislative corruption in Albany," as he said in a 2013 campaign commercial touting his creation of a commission to root out corrupt lawmakers.
A year later, Cuomo shuttered the commission in a deal brokered with Silver and Senate Republican Leader Dean Skelos. Cuomo shared a stage with both men Wednesday at his State of the State address, in which he referred to the three top leaders as the "three amigos."
On Thursday, Cuomo told the editorial board of the Daily News that Silver's arrest is a "bad reflection" on state government. "And it adds to the cynicism and it adds to the 'they're all the same.'"
Two of Cuomo's former election opponents — Republican Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino and Democratic law professor Zephyr Teachout — have questioned whether the Moreland Commission on Public Corruption investigated Silver's outside income before it was shut down by Cuomo.
According to the criminal complaint, the Moreland Commission requested information about Silver's outside employment — and subpoenaed his law firm. Silver fought the subpoena in court — using taxpayer money. His motion was pending when Cuomo agreed to disband the commission.
Cuomo also faces questions about whether his office tried to prevent it from investigating groups linked to the governor. Bharara has said he's looking into whether anyone tried to interfere with the commission, and Cuomo's campaign filings show he spent $100,000 on a criminal defense attorney representing him in the matter.
Look for the governor to try to distance himself from Silver and to push for new ethics reforms, said Fordham University Political Science Professor Christina Greer.
"It's really embarrassing and it really says a lot about the state of Albany and the level of corruption," she said of Silver's arrest. "It also explains why so many New Yorkers don't participate in these really important elections. They have the preconceived notion that lawmakers are criminals."
Cuomo has already offered several ethics reforms, including new rules for the use of campaign accounts and restrictions on outside income earned by lawmakers. Government watchdog groups also want stronger lobbying rules and stricter regulations on the disclosure of the money lawmakers make from side jobs.
Another fix may sound counterintuitive: pay lawmakers more.
Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause-New York, said better compensation for lawmakers, coupled with stronger disclosure and reporting laws, could reduce the temptation to cheat.
"It's the system," Lerner said. "We see people who start out with a very clear idea of what is acceptable and what is not begin to slide because the people around them," Lerner said. "I think virtually everybody up there comes in thinking they will do good things. But over time, well ..."