Opinion Editorial on Ethics
More Rot in AlbanyThe Editorial Board
The corruption scandal that blew up in Albany this week is the equivalent of a Russian nesting doll: a federal prosecutor accusing a state senator of conspiring with county party bosses and a city councilman to buy a spot on a city ballot and to steer state money to a village mayor. It’s a wonder it didn’t wrap in a local school board and the P.T.A. You could hardly ask for a better all-purpose illustration of the rot that pervades New York State’s political culture.
The multilayered, many-tentacled convolution of this case is fairly stunning, as is the stupidity on which it turns. As federal prosecutors described it, the senator, Malcolm Smith, a Democrat from Queens, wanted to run for mayor of New York City as a Republican, using money that wasn’t his to rig a race that he could never win. The plan was complicated. There was a graphic in The Times on Wednesday with arrows, dollar signs and pictures of the defendants, but essentially it boils down to Albany’s same old, same old.
The charges: bribery, wire fraud, extortion. The accused: Mr. Smith; Daniel Halloran III, a Republican city councilman from Queens; two Republican Party leaders from Queens and the Bronx, Vincent Tabone and Joseph Savino; and two officials in Spring Valley, a village in Rockland County. The settings: the customary mobster-style mix of steakhouses, hotel rooms, parked cars and even Mr. Smith’s Albany office. The items bought and sold: ballot access, a road project, a community center, politicians’ votes, party endorsements.
The apparent common denominator was the belief that anything could be had for the right price. “Money is what greases the wheels,” the complaint quotes Mr. Halloran as saying. He is accused of taking more than $45,000 and fantasizing that a Mayor Smith would appoint him deputy police commissioner or deputy mayor. Voters should resist — as we are doing, with effort — the urge to cackle and write off Albany as an undrainable ethical cesspool. A cesspool it is, but it’s the only Albany we have. There is no reason to give up the long fight to clean it up.
It begins with the obvious: The resignations of the compromised pols, starting with the sleaze-spattered Mr. Smith. The harder job will be getting rid of the pay-to-play culture. This means repealing the law that gives party leaders the right to allow outsiders to run in primaries. For years, the Republican line in New York City has been sold to high bidders who — like Mayor Michael Bloomberg — make legal contributions to the party treasury. (Mr. Smith is accused of illegally funneling cash to personal accounts.) This invites corruption and misleads voters who presume a Republican is actually a Republican.
It also means eliminating the slush funds known as member items that lawmakers control and invariably abuse. Albany got rid of these corrupting cash flows; the city hasn’t. The City Council speaker, Christine Quinn, has made only stopgap reforms to this rotten system.
Then there is scrapping rigged electoral maps that keep lawmakers in office until they are indicted or dead. Mr. Smith was already under an ethical cloud when he ran last year with no competition and won. Some votes went to write-in candidates — including “Jack Sprat” and Glenn Beck — few of whom got more than one vote each. Mr. Smith — unless he ends up in prison scrubs — would easily win again. The choice — the unsavory Mr. Smith or fictional Mr. Sprat — is a horrible one.
Update: The feds have charged another New York State lawmaker with bribery. Assemblyman Eric Stevenson, Democrat of the Bronx, was arrested on Thursday, accused of taking money from developers of adult day-care centers for, among other things, drafting legislation to prevent competitors from opening centers in New York City. A second assemblyman, Nelson Castro, also a Bronx Democrat, was also implicated. He resigned his seat on Thursday after cutting a deal with prosecutors.