FBI raid raises ethics issues -- again

Assemb. William Scarborough (D-Queens) had his capital and

Assemb. William Scarborough (D-Queens) had his capital and district offices raided -- along with his home and hotel room -- in what he later described as an investigation of his per-diem expenses. (Credit: AP / Jim McKnight)

Dan Janison

Melville. N.Y. Tuesday January 26, 2010. Daniel Janison, Dan Janison

Dan Janison has been a reporter at Newsday for 10

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The sight of federal agents hauling boxes of seized records through a Legislative Office Building hallway in Albany on Wednesday became an instant reminder of the Capitol's role as a prosecution factory.

Assemb. William Scarborough (D-Queens) just had his capital and district offices raided -- along with his home and hotel room -- in what he later described as an investigation of his per-diem expenses.

The veteran lawmaker hasn't been charged and insists he acted "in accordance with the law."

The probe surfaced just as lawmakers and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo looked to finish a state budget in which Cuomo asked to include key campaign-finance changes despite GOP resistance. The raid could have occurred during any week in Albany, but its timing, presumed coincidental, remains interesting in a limited and symbolic way.

Since it seems to involve state funds, this latest tempest does little or nothing by itself to bolster some advocates' insistence that campaign-financing changes offer the path to better politics.

Still, lawmakers may wish to try a public-relations counterpunch of some kind. Even if they fall short of enacting some nationally noticed new political financing system, the Assembly and Senate could set the stage for enforcing existing election laws -- something election boards, jointly controlled by the two major parties, rarely if ever do.

One day before the Scarborough raid, the New York City Citizens Union bared a new absurd example of this. The group contacted the city Board of Elections and asked it to investigate charges of electioneering by Assemb. Carmen Arroyo (D-Bronx). The board eventually claimed -- incorrectly, the group says -- it didn't have the appropriate authority. The Citizens Union turned to the state board of elections, which eventually responded that the city had "taken appropriate action to remedy the complaints."

Which isn't to say the entire system has held the Arroyo campaign harmless. On Wednesday, the Bronx district attorney's office criminally charged three of her former campaign workers with forging nearly 100 ballot petition signatures -- from Kate Moss' to Derek Jeter's. The DA did not accuse Arroyo of wrongdoing.

Scarborough's concerns -- again, of a different type -- seem simpler.

Vouchers are a familiar source of trouble. Ten years ago, Brooklyn Democrat Roger Green quit the Assembly after he pleaded guilty to billing the state for false travel expenses.

Ever since, questions continually arise over whether lawmakers really were working in Albany, or elsewhere, on days for which they claim $172-per-day payments above their $79,500 yearly salaries plus stipends.

In a period when Albany lawmakers cut plea deals and wear wires, Scarborough becomes the latest of several legislative names -- a high concentration of them from southeast Queens -- to draw the heat.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan), famous for his survival skills, said Wednesday that he knew nothing about the Scarborough case. Maybe this weekend, however, he'll add his imprimatur to some budget measure to address some conduct problem in some way.

Most likely, political life goes on as usual. Scarborough won office when he charged the previous incumbent, the late Cynthia Jenkins, a fellow Democrat, with election fraud in court. She dropped out of the primary during the case.

That was 20 years ago.