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A Slow Motion Car Crash

How long must we put up with corruption in Albany?

Watch­ing the New York State govern­ment in Albany is like watch­ing a car crash into a wall in slow motion. You know this will end badly. And you know it did not have to be this way — if the car had only turned a differ­ent direc­tion earlier.

In 2004 the Bren­nan Center called Albany the most dysfunc­tional legis­lature in the nation. One of the reas­ons Albany earned this ignoble title was the power in the New York legis­lature had pooled around the feet of two indi­vidu­als: (1) the Speaker of the Assembly and (2) the Senate Major­ity Leader.  These two men had (and have) a near strangle­hold on the legis­lat­ive process. 

Add in the Governor of New York to these two and there are the “Three Men in Room” who control New York State govern­ment. Noth­ing can get done unless all three agree, which makes Albany a grave­yard for good ideas. But years after good govern­ment groups warned that the state’s govern­ment was horribly broken, and needed to be fixed before things got really out of hand, the federal indict­ments are finally rolling in.

The latest crim­inal complaint was for the New York Senate Major­ity Leader Dean Skelos. This comes right on the heels of the Speaker of the New York Assembly Shel­don Silver’s indict­ment on corrup­tion charges.

If the phrase “the New York Senate Major­ity Leader has been indicted” reminds you of the movie “Ground­hog Day,” it should. Dean Skelos is the fifth man in a row to hold that posi­tion to be indicted. As of May 11, 2015, Skelos refused to resign from his lead­er­ship post in the Senate and his caucus is resist­ing efforts by Demo­cratic Senat­ors to force him from his perch. The governor was noncom­mit­tal telling the New York Times: “It’s not my place to tell them who their leader should be.”

The New York Legis­lature must have been a strange place to work in the past few years as lawmakers who had their own legal woes wore FBI record­ing devices to catch their colleagues in corrupt acts. The Wall Street Journal repor­ted legis­lat­ors became reluct­ant to talk around the capitol for fear that a fellow lawmaker was wear­ing a wire for Manhat­tan U.S. Attor­ney Preet Bhar­ara. 

And yet at the very same time, there was a near vice grip by incum­bents on their seats in Albany. As two of my former Bren­nan Center colleagues noted, for years, it was more likely for a member of the New York legis­lature to die in office than to lose a general elec­tion. This is why advoc­ates of chan­ging Albany’s corrupt culture have focused on campaign finance reform as one solu­tion to break the fever. The basic idea is if there were public finan­cing of elec­tions, then private money would not be the only path to elec­ted office in Albany; there­fore a better and more diverse group of candid­ates would toss their hats in the ring.   

What Senate Leader Skelos stands accused of doing is forcing a govern­ment contractor to pay his son. This is the flip side of the bribery prob­lem that often anim­ates the fear of money in polit­ics — that a private company will bribe a public offi­cial to do a certain offi­cial act. Instead, here we get a person in power allegedly shak­ing down a company and extort­ing money from it with the prom­ise to help secure a lucrat­ive multi-million-dollar govern­ment contract, among other alleg­a­tions.

In the crim­inal complaint, the govern­ment reports catch­ing Skelos on a wiretap brag­ging about his enorm­ous power: “I’m going to be Major­ity Leader, I’m going to control everything. I’m going to control who gets on what commit­tees, what legis­la­tion goes to the floor, what legis­la­tion comes through commit­tee, the budget, everything.”

Which gets us back to the original prob­lem that the Bren­nan Center iden­ti­fied in 2004 that too much power is held by whoever is Assembly Speaker or Senate Leader. This power needs to be dispersed back to the rank and file members of the legis­lature so that two indi­vidu­als do not have so much lever­age over the fate of the fourth biggest state in the union. The current legis­lat­ive struc­ture is a recipe for pay to play corrup­tion pure and simple.

Ex-Assembly Speaker Silver and Senate Leader Skelos may yet prove their inno­cence. On the other hand, Silver and Skelos might share the fate of another famous corrupt New York politi­cian, Boss Tweed, who took his last breath in a jail he helped build.

The views expressed are the author’s own and not neces­sar­ily those of the Bren­nan Center for Justice

(Photo: Think­stock)