Miguel Martinez - the city councilman who just admitted he stole $106,000 from the New York City taxpayers - appears to have started abusing the public trust about three days after he was sworn into office. So this isn't the saga of an innocent kid from Washington Heights who fell in with bad company.
But if a seat in the City Council was not the cause of Martinez' undoing, it did provide the means. The ability of council members to funnel money to community groups in their district is what the nuns in my Catholic grammar school used to call a near occasion of sin.
In other words, the temptation to abuse the system is impossible to resist for any but the most high-minded politicians. The average New York legislator doesn't go as far as Martinez, who literally stole money from children's art programs. The more common practice is for politicians to direct public cash at their disposal not to the most worthy community groups but to the ones that will provide political support for them at the next election.
The money comes from a pot that the City Council calls the slush fund. In Washington, they call it earmarks. In Albany it's member items. To the lucky community groups, it's manna from heaven. For the legislators themselves, it's often their reason for existing.
This is the world of pork, and when any particular grant gets attention, it's usually because it sounds particularly silly. The upstate lawmaker who devoted his member item to the construction of a cheese museum lives on in history, and this year people are giggling about the guy who directed $1,000 to a parrot adoption program.
But nobody who wanted to steal money would call themselves a cheese museum. The real problems have innocuous names. Martinez favored things like the Washington Heights Arts Center, which got $163,000 over five years with the councilman skimming off $15,000. He directed $800,000 over two years to the Upper Manhattan Council Assisting Neighbors, where his sister sits on the board of directors. U-CAN partnered with a developer to build low-income housing in a deal that netted Martinez $40,000.
Council members - and state senators and members of Congress - say that they know better than anyone which local groups do the most good, and where this special money can best be directed. That may be true, but whatever virtues the pork system has are far outweighed by the damage it does in corrupting both the givers and the takers.
This week in Albany the state senate got ready to leave for summer vacation without having dealt with the critical issue of mayoral control of New York City schools. But it had plenty of time to approve $85 million worth of member items. Pedro Espada, whose triple dealing kept the entire chamber in chaos for more than a month, got $2 million. Does anybody think Espada would have defected from the Republicans and returned the balance of power to the Democrats last week if he didn't expect to be in line for a big payday in the form of community grants at his disposal?
Does anybody think Pedro Espada would have wanted to become a state senator in the first place if it wasn't for the member items?