Opinion & Blogs

It’s Time For a New Normal in Albany

It’s time to put a stop to promising New Yorkers real ethics reform and not delivering.

Former New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver leaves federal court in New York, Nov. 30, 2015. Photo by Robert Stolarik of The New York Times

When now-convicted former New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver was on trial for corruption charges about a year ago, we heard repeatedly from his counsel that the lawmaker’s actions in question were completely “legal and normal.”

Weeks later, state Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos was also on trial for corruption — the fifth majority leader in a row to be indicted on criminal activity — along with his son. Adam Skelos’ attorney cried that the government was trying to “turn a very normal father-son relationship into a crime.”

Now, Silver was convicted of routing state money to an oncologist, who then referred patients to a law firm from which he received referral fees. He also negotiated state tax breaks for a real estate company, which then steered business to a law firm, from which he also received referral fees. In all, he pocketed nearly $5.3 million.

Dean Skelos, the former New York State Senate majority leader, and his son Adam Skelos, right, leave federal court after being found guilty on all counts at their corruption trial in New York, Dec. 11, 2015. Adam Skelos benefited from roughly $300,000 via consulting work and a no-show job secured through the influence of his father. (Andrew Renneisen/The New York Times)

Dean Skelos, the former New York State Senate majority leader, and his son Adam Skelos, right, leave federal court after being found guilty on all counts at their corruption trial in New York, Dec. 11, 2015. Photo by Andrew Renneisen of The New York Times

Skelos used his power to get his 33-year-old son, Adam, a $78,000-a-year job to which he sometimes would not show up for, and when asked to actually come to work, the young Skelos told his boss, “talk to me like that again and I’m going to smash your fucking head in.”

Now, tell me if you think that’s normal.

Until a pension forfeiture amendment is added to the state constitution, both Silver and Skelos will receive nearly $100,000 in yearly pensions, courtesy of taxpayers, while they are serving their respective 12 and 5-year terms in federal prison.

Tell me if you think that’s normal.

Silver spent more campaign money than any of the other 200 plus state lawmakers running for re-election in 2016. But he wasn’t up for re-election. He instead used that campaign money to pay for $3 million in legal fees since his arrest. Skelos used around $1 million of his campaign funds for the same purpose.

Tell me if you think that’s normal.

Along with Silver and Skelos, 30 state lawmakers have been prosecuted since 2000. Provisions of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration and other state agencies have also been continuously under investigation for illegal activity.

Tell me if you think that’s normal.

Tell me if you think it’s normal that the third highest paid Legislature in the nation can’t address those issues but requested a pay raise upwards of 47 percent because they thought they deserved it, and even requested a special session between Dec. 25 and 31 to negotiate that raise. Since a pay raise is extremely unpopular with New Yorkers, it would’ve been much more convenient to get it approved once elections were over and when New Yorkers were distracted by mistletoe and candy canes. Even after Cuomo extended an olive branch — offering the pay raise if the Legislature seriously discussed ethics reform and Uber — lawmakers didn’t budge.

As of right now, conspiracy, fraud, bribery, extortion, money laundering, abuse of power and using campaign bank accounts for trips to Cancun and Acapulco, as Sen. Gregory R. Ball of New York City did, all remain the norm in Albany. While that itself is extremely frightening, what is more so is that our representatives have barely put in any effort to stop it. More frightening still is when such “legal and normal” activity continues to not just be ignored, but defended.

Back in June, the Supreme Court unanimously overturned the conviction of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell. McDonnell was found guilty in 2014 of illegally receiving gifts, money and loans from the CEO of a Virginia-based company in exchange for official acts seen as favorable to the CEO and his business, similar “normal” activity New York officials have been convicted of. After the ruling, Sheldon Silver’s attorneys said in a joint statement that the court’s decision “makes clear that federal government has gone too far in prosecuting state officials for conduct that is part of the everyday functioning of those in elected office. The McDonnell decision will be central to Mr. Silver’s appeal.”

That one decision not only endangers New York’s progress of bringing crooked New York politicians to justice, but it essentially dictates that corruption is okay — because it’s normal. By the way, both Silver and Skelos, who were supposed to begin their sentences in August, remain free pending their appeals.

Enough is enough. As a new session in the Capitol gets underway, it is imperative that this one actually produce definitive, effective and long-lasting measures combating corruption in this state. It’s time for a new normal in Albany.

It’s time to put a stop to the endless charades of promising New Yorkers real ethics reform and not delivering. It’s time to close the LLC loophole, which allows big donors and special interests to circumvent the state’s campaign finance limits and funnel millions of dollars to the candidates of their choice. It’s time to finish what was started on withholding pensions from disgraced state politicians. It’s time to limit lawmakers’ outside income to 15 percent of their annual salary they get from the Legislature, a measure Syracuse legislators Sen. John DeFrancisco and Assemblyman Bill Magnarelli both oppose. And then, create an independent ethics panel that can investigate those suspected of wrongdoing — preferably a panel that Cuomo isn’t allowed to shut down.

And in the wake of the arrest of nine men connected to the governor’s economic revitalization effort this fall, reforming economic development contract awards should also be included in the mix.

Will these measures forever end corruption in New York? Of course not. But they will help reverse the narrative that actions like using donations to a non-profit to pay for over $37,000 in personal expenses, as ex-Sen. Efraín González Jr. did, is just business as usual in Albany.

What’s supposed to be normal is using campaign funds for, you know, campaigns. What’s supposed to be normal is using public office as a way to serve the people, not the individual.

Above all, what’s supposed to be normal is representatives who adhere to the very constituents who elected them. Well, 97 percent of New York voters say it’s important that the state pass new laws to combat corruption in the government. It’s time to start listening to them.

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