Opinion & Blogs

New York Ethics Reform Needed Now More Than Ever

Recent wrongdoings by state officials have highlighted the need for ethics reform.

Former state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. Photo by Gregg Vigliotti of The New York Times

Susan Powter isn’t the only one screaming “stop the insanity!” The citizens of New York are as well.

The amount of drama that has come out of the state legislature in the last two years is unprecedented. And just when it seems like things couldn’t get any worse, they get worse.

Just days before former state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver was sentenced to 12 years in federal prison on corruption charges, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion initiative is the latest item taken out of Albany’s dirty laundry basket for possible misdeeds. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s campaign fundraising has also been under investigation the last several weeks.

There are at least six former state officials currently serving time in prison. Former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, who will be sentenced later this month, is the fifth straight majority leader to be indicted. The Senate’s No. 2 person, Thomas Libous, was convicted last year of lying to the FBI. And that’s just recently. To polish it off, more than 30 state politicians have either been convicted, sanctioned or accused of wrongdoing in the last decade.

They say the first step to solving a problem is recognizing there is one. In the case of Albany, recognizing there is a problem is the problem. Like a carrot dangling in front of a donkey, Cuomo and legislators keep feeding the public their broad and halfhearted promises for ethics reform and then time and again fail to deliver. They said ethics would be included in the budget. It wasn’t. Now they say they will adapt measures before the end of the legislative session — which is only a month away. A recent Siena College poll finds that 97 percent of the public want lawmakers to take steps to remove corruption before they adjourn in June.

Alas, there are still many lawmakers that either refuse to see reform as a priority or are just now realizing corruption is a problem. Silver himself, in an apology letter to the court, said “because of my actions, New York’s ethics rules were and continue to be analyzed, evaluated and criticized, everywhere … Because of me, the government has been ridiculed.”

Silver has been so sunk in Albany he is convinced that his conviction made the corruption crisis surface. Sorry, Mr. Silver. As monumental as your sentencing was, a new corrupt New York politician is as common in the news as a weather report.

So what must reform entail? For starters, enact pension exclusions for convicted public officials. It is simply ludicrous that while in prison, Silver will still receive an $80,000 yearly pension. Skelos will get $95,000 annually — all provided by New York taxpayers — many of whom will never see half that amount as a working citizen — while, you know, not breaking the law. Speaking of income, politicians shouldn’t earn an average salary of $90,000 for only six months of work and should be limited on outside income. Many scandals have come about due to jobs outside of the Capitol.

The state must also 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. Then, create an independent ethics panel to find and remove the dirty weeds from government. And actually make it independent — not a panel whose members are appointed by chamber leaders or the governor, like the current Joint Commission on Public Ethics.

It’s more than just keeping the money out of politics, however. It’s also about sending a message — a message to those who have committed these crimes and to those who might still.

While in court, both Sheldon and Skelos maintained they had done nothing wrong — their defense literally being that their illegal acts were business as usual in Albany.

The New York Times recently published a piece on former state politicians behind bars. Efraín González Jr., an ex-senator who was convicted in 2009 of using funds donated to a non-profit to pay for over $37,000 in personal expenses, said this about Silver and Skelos.“I wouldn’t say they were crooks. Everybody does all that. It’s, ‘I help you, you help me.’ So what is that? Politics.”

That kind of thinking is exactly why ethics reform is needed. Corruption can no longer be defended by “well, he’s doing it, so why can’t I?” That’s a pitiful defense for any crime, let alone someone of this merit.

It’s time to put a stop to that kind of normal. Because it’s not just about the legislation, it’s about reminding our elected officials that illegal acts have consequences and that they are required to use their office to benefit their constituents, not themselves. That, Mr. González, is what “politics” is supposed to be and that’s the politics that New Yorkers want and deserve.

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