It's time to clean up the corruption in NY politics

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Joye Brown Newsday columnist Joye Brown

Joye Brown has been a columnist for Newsday since 2006. She joined the newspaper in 1983 and has ...

It takes teamwork to make the schemes work.

Because what rankles most about last week's newest accusations about corruption involving elected state officials is that not a single one is alleged to have acted alone.

You'd need a diagram to connect all of the dots alleged to link state Sen. Malcolm Smith (D-Hollis), Republican New York City Councilman Dan Halloran, two city Republican Party officials and two Rockland County officials arrested after one indictment was handed down last week.

A map might come in handy, too: The indictment alleges that offenses, including bribery, occurred in Rockland and Westchester counties and Manhattan.

Barely 48 hours after news of the indictment against Smith et al, however, the U.S. government was back with another.

This time a state assemblyman, Democrat Eric Stevenson, was in the federal government's crosshairs -- with allegations based on information provided by another state assemblyman, Democrat Nelson Castro, which added the Bronx to the geographic mix.

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The political and party officials arrested last week included Republicans and Democrats; Albany veterans and newcomers who, according to the indictments, had no problem using money to attempt to manipulate the political process.

How deep, how wide does corruption run in New York State? U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara is sure to -- as he should -- keep digging.

Some of those arrested last week talked openly, along with undercover operatives, about elected officials who had been caught up in corruption scandals in the past.

"If half the people up here in Albany was ever caught for what they do," Stevenson was quoted as saying, "they . . . would probably be in the same place" as former New York State Comptroller Alan Hevesi.

Hevesi served 20 months of a 1-to-4-year sentence for a massive pay-to-play scheme involving the state pension fund. He was released in December.

According to the indictments, at least two of the officials arrested allegedly continued to scheme even after they took steps they thought would minimize the chance of surveillance.

Is this what public service is supposed to be? Smith, a Democrat, is charged in connection with trying to buy his way into the mayoral race by bribing Republican party officials.

Is this what the public interest is supposed to be? Stevenson was charged with taking bribes from businessmen operating adult day care centers in return for sponsoring legislation that would have limited competition.

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A law enforcement official who reviewed a video said that the surveillance showed Stevenson "stuffing [an] envelope . . . into his front pants pocket and covering his front pocket with the bottom of his shirt."

What can be done?

The investigations must continue; and punishments for public officials convicted in corruption-related cases ought to be strong enough to deter others from so easily taking that path.

The biggest challenge, however, will be to eliminate as much money as possible from the corruption equation.

". . . Our politicians in New York, they're all like that . . . ," Smith said, according to an indictment. "You can't do anything without the @#$%@ money."

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You could, actually, if New York had public financing of elections. That wouldn't stop corrupt officials from soliciting money to -- as mentioned in the indictments -- pay for mortgages, college tuition or catering bills.

But public financing might start to beat back Albany's dense knit of corruption. Or at least stop it from appearing to be so @#$%@ ubiquitous.

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