Opinion Editorial on Dedicated Legislature
Ugly string of corruption accusations must force State Legislature to pass reforms
The lawyer for State Sen. John L. Sampson wants everyone to know that the Brooklyn Democrat has not been charged with “official corruption.” The crimes of which the former Senate leader is accused, Zachery Carter noted, are “ordinary charges.”
Ordinary, anyway, in the sense of maybe embezzling nearly half-a-million dollars in a bid to become the borough’s district attorney. That is to say, Sampson stands accused of trying to steal his way into law enforcement.
Does everyone feel better now?
Carter’s best efforts notwithstanding, these charges are, indeed, additional evidence of the culture of criminal and moral entitlement that pervades Albany, much – though not all – of it emanating from downstate parasites who believe the public hide is there for their feasting.
In recent weeks we’ve learned that two downstate Democrats have worn wires as part of a federal corruption probe. One of them, Assemblyman Nelson Castro of the Bronx, recently resigned as part of a plea bargain. Information he provided led to bribery charges against Assemblyman Eric Stevenson, also a Bronx Democrat.
Shirley Huntley, a Democratic state senator from Queens who was forced to resign in her own corruption scandal, also wore a wire. She recorded conversations with Sampson and State Sen. Malcolm Smith, who already faces corruption charges, and State Sens. Eric Adams, Ruth Hassel-Thompson, Jose Peralta and Velmanette Montgomery, who have not yet been charged. On Thursday Huntley was sentenced to one year and a day in prison for embezzling nearly $88,000 from a state-funded nonprofit she controlled.
Sampson is no back-bencher. He led the Senate from 2009 to 2010. He is a creature of the Legislature, and on Monday he was arraigned on nine counts involving embezzlement, lying to FBI agents and trying to obstruct the investigation. Prosecutors say Sampson took $440,000 from escrow accounts he controlled as a court-appointed referee to help finance his losing 2005 Democratic primary run for Brooklyn district attorney. He then sought $188,000 from a real estate executive – since convicted of fraud – to cover up the crime, according to prosecutors.
Smith, a former Senate leader from Queens, was recently arrested as part of a bribe scheme to get Republican Party backing for a New York City mayoral run.
The crimes, if true, are disgraceful. But that is now a commonplace observation. If New York State government isn’t the nation’s most corrupt, it has to be near the top. Criminal charges are the norm, making mere ethical violations seem not so bad, after all.
The question is how to change the culture in Albany. Tougher criminal penalties are obviously needed. And public financing of elections would reduce the ethical problems related to seeking campaign money. It is apparently a small step for those ethical problems to turn into outright bribery. Public financing also would help keep incumbents accountable to their constituents instead of big-money interests. Independent redistricting is also an urgent matter – one that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo promised to pursue, but didn’t.
In the end, of course, it is impossible to protect against all the machinations of those who seek to gain illegally from public service.
But one concept, perhaps above all others, will help to discourage it: openness. The more information the public can readily access, the less officials will be tempted to try getting away with something. In Florida, for example, public officials’ emails are easily searchable by the public. In addition, emails sent by public officials on public matters using private accounts are also considered public records.
New York needs to act now to make a religion of openness. Nothing less can save the state from catastrophic public disdain. All reasonable steps need to be taken to give voters access to the information that will promote honest government.