How Sheldon Silver Got Away With it For So Long

The capitol is awash in money and conflicts of interest, with no true ethics cops on the beat.

January 26, 2015

Cross-posted from The Daily News

With the indictment of Speaker Sheldon Silver, the political class in Albany has been shaken to its core. Good.

Many have noted that the charges brought by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara echo the very "conflicts of interest" the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption was examining before Gov. Cuomo shut it down last fall. Less noticed is the role a 2011 overhaul to the state's ethics laws — championed and signed by the governor himself — may have played in tripping up the speaker.

While there have long been rumors Silver was paid exorbitant sums from his legal practice for little or no actual work, it wasn't until the passage of the 2011 law that we actually got a sense of what "exorbitant" actually meant.

That law required outside income up to $10 million be reported publicly and with far more detail than ever before. It forced the speaker to reveal that he made over a million dollars in outside income in 2012 and 2013 alone — significant information for the public and prosecutors.

Acknowledging the 2011 law's impact is important, because it proves that Albany is not beyond salvation.

It can be fixed if we put the right rules in place.

But it should be obvious to everyone far more needs to be done. Regardless of how the prosecution of Silver plays out, many of the conflicts of interests that have contributed to the indictment or conviction of 21 legislators in the last 10 years (including three of the last five majority leaders in the Senate) remain firmly in place.

We have a system rigged by the powerful for the powerful to serve themselves and their interests without public scrutiny. A state government awash in money, where conflicts are largely shielded from view. That makes it exceedingly easy for legislators to advance the interests of their big-money backers over those of their constituents.

Some have argued outside income should be banned altogether. Combined with a pay raise, that could attract strong candidates more invested in the public interest than their own pocketbooks.

But giving anyone a pay raise in Albany today is difficult to imagine. If we're not going to ban legislators from earning outside income, we need far stronger disclosure of where their money comes from. Even after the 2011 reform, lawmakers with part-time legal or consulting practices are not required to identify many sources of income that could present conflicts of interest. By contrast, states like California, Washington, Wisconsin and Alaska require more detailed disclosure of client identity.

Or look at campaign donations. Albany runs on five- and six-figure contributions that only the wealthiest can afford. Even without taking advantage of the massive loopholes in place, candidates running for statewide office in New York can legally solicit more than $60,000 from a single donor. And then $60,000 more in each new election cycle. That dwarfs the federal limit of $5,200 per election cycle, even for the President.

To quote the Moreland commission's findings, "when political power and access is so closely and disproportionately tied to large donations, the majority of New Yorkers are shut out."

Comprehensive reform must close the loopholes, lower contribution limits and allow candidates to run competitive campaigns by relying on small donations from everyday citizens.

And we need to end unlawful personal use of campaign accounts by clearly spelling out what is not allowed. The Moreland Commission found nearly a dozen examples of sitting legislators who may have asked both the state and their campaign funds for reimbursement of travel expenses.

If confirmed, this "double-dipping" would mean officeholders were essentially pocketing public money. Equally troubling, the Commission found former candidates using millions in campaign funds for things that were clearly not for campaign purposes: holiday cards, personal travel,? lobbying. A new Board of Elections enforcement unit created in 2014 may help, but there is clearly a lot of work to do.

Bharara deserves praise for picking up where the Moreland Commission left off. But as Attorney General-nominee Loretta Lynch said in testimony to that body last year, we will never "prosecute our way" out of Albany's corrupt culture.

Ultimately, we need to radically change the system itself. The 2011 ethics law changes, Moreland Commission recommendations, and Bharara's investigations have demonstrated that possibilities for reform are real — and can be effective. If the indictment of Silver is actually the political earthquake in Albany that so many have suggested, lawmakers must finish the job and pass comprehensive reforms to bring the statehouse up to code.

As Bharara said on Friday, "If there was ever a moment for real reform, I think it's now. If ever there was a time for New Yorkers to show trademark impatience, now's a good time for that."

(Photo: AP)