THE BLOG

The Continued Corruption of New York's Politics

06/27/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Steven Cohen Executive Director, Columbia University's Earth Institute

Attorney General Andrew Cuomo's recent filing of a civil suit against State Senator Pedro Espada is another episode in the disheartening saga of public "service" in New York. Let's review the highlights of the lowlifes:

  • State Comptroller Alan Hevesi's use of state cars and drivers for his family and his political guru Hank Morris' use of the state's pension business to enrich himself.
  • Governor Elliott Spitzer's philandering with prostitutes.
  • State Senator Hiram Monserrate's slashing of his partner's face.
  • Governor Paterson's possible intervention in a domestic violence case of a close aide, acceptance of free Yankee tickets, and intervention in a corrupt race track deal.
  • Congressman Rangel's multiple rent stabilized apartments and free vacations.
  • And finally, State Senator Espada's incredible alleged use of the Soundview Health Care Network as a personal piggy bank for himself, family and political cronies. Attorney General Cuomo's civil suit alleges that Espada has drained over $14 million from this non-profit organization.

These are just the most obvious and media worthy examples in recent years. Unquestionably there is a lot more where this came from. As disgusting as these examples of corruption are, in my view, these are just the tip of the iceberg.

The real problem is that being a legislator in New York State is not considered a full time job. Legislators are permitted and in many respects expected to be employed elsewhere. Even the leaders of the New York State legislature, as busy as they must be, are allowed to be employed elsewhere. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver is of counsel to the Law firm of Weitz and Luxembourg, a personal injury law firm, and refuses to disclose his outside income. He argues, correctly, that his outside income and nondisclosure are completely legal. The question is: should they be? Shelly observes the letter of the law, and so the law is the problem. Of course for the law to be changed, Assembly Speaker Silver must support that change. What are the odds of that happening when he and his colleagues so clearly benefit from the existing law?

What is particularly amazing about this is the brazen shamelessness of the key players. We are treated to the amazing spectacle of Elliot Spitzer looking at, or should we say lusting after, a second act in electoral politics. He then has the nerve to accuse Andrew Cuomo of pursuing politically motivated investigations. I keep wanting to say "Zip it up Elliot"... But I suspect that would be redundant. Does he really think that the voters have amnesia? Do elected officials believe they are above the law? How can the Attorney General root out political corruption if he doesn't go after politicians?

What all of these corrupt and unethical players have in common is their contempt for the public and their self-centered world views. Anything can be justified because these guys all think of themselves as indispensable public officials. This is a perversion of the concept of public service and the opposite of effective leadership.

I want to repeat what I wrote here on March 2 and then take it a step or two further:

We need to search for a systemic cure for this disease of corruption. We need a real system of checks and balances that makes it clear to public officials that if they abuse the public's trust, someone is watching and they will get caught. But we also need to change the overall environment in our state government. I would start by tightly regulating outside income for legislators while increasing their salaries. Legislators make an average of $90,000 a year in New York, and we still operate under the myth that these are part time jobs. New York's budget is over $130 billion dollars a year. Running a state of this size should be a full time job and not a hobby. While average New Yorkers may think that $90,000 is a lot of money, it is not. These low salaries are an invitation for corruption - and many of our legislators seem to be accepting that invitation.

The only way this is going to change is if the public demands change. The state of New York is a wholly owned subsidiary of lobbyists representing businesses, unions and large non-profits. The public interest is not simply an equation that adds the value of the individual self interest of each of these groups. Paying off all of these interest groups has made it impossible to set public priorities or invest in essential infrastructure. The modern form of corruption is not the overt graft and pay-offs practiced by Senator Pedro Espada, but the subtle self dealing and pay-for-play of Shelly Silver and the other members of the legislature. Both are reprehensible, but only one is illegal.

If New York is to thrive it needs excellent leadership. New York City came back from the brink of oblivion in the mid 1970's because we were lucky enough to have a strong Mayoral-centered government structure and a series of competent Mayors: Koch, Dinkins, (early) Giuliani and Bloomberg. Albany has had three men in a room and pay-for-play for so long, we can't remember anything else. The crisis of systemic corruption makes effective public policy impossible. The upstate economy will not recover until we figure out a way to reform the political process in Albany.

Both California and New York are heading toward a fiscal cliff. I am not arguing for participatory democracy. California's fiscal disaster is the result of too much democracy. But New York's economic and fiscal crisis is the result of too little of it. We need to reform the rules of the game before there is no game left to play.