HV lawmakers: State's corruption crackdown is overdue

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. (Credit: AP )

First-term state Sen. George Latimer says his longtime constituents don't look at him any differently since the bribery probe that took down half a dozen politicians last week.

But, he says, constituents "look at you funny. They're looking at you and they're trying to judge."

That's one reason why Latimer says he supports Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's anti-corruption proposal, rolled out Tuesday and dubbed the Public Trust Act, designed to give prosecutors more tools to go after crooked lawmakers while increasing penalties to dissuade politicians from considering bribes.


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"The thought that we're all corrupt is so corrosive it makes you want to get out of the business," said Latimer (D-Rye). "The average person has come to believe, because of what they've seen in terms of scandals, that the majority of public officials in New York are corrupt. Not all of us, but a majority of us."

Although Cuomo on Monday repeatedly tried to cast the cases as New York City-based, not Albany, he also said he wanted to look at tightening campaign finance laws and eliminating the practice of allowing a political party to give its ballot line to someone from another party.

Cuomo raised the possibility of switching to a full-time Legislature whose members would be paid more. That could help reduce the potential for conflicts of interest. He also noted that the state already has enacted a new ethics law and set up the Joint Commission on Public Ethics.

Rockland County District Attorney Thomas Zugibe was among those who flanked Cuomo during the Tuesday news conference introducing the reforms. Another key part of the proposal would require politicians to report illegal behavior on the part of their colleagues, or else face charges themselves.

"It's one thing when you're a private citizen, but when you're a public official you have the added responsibility to report exactly what you see," Zugibe said.

Cuomo's general counsel Mylan Denerstein outlined technical provisions under the new Public Trust Act.

Part of the Cuomo proposal involves stiffened penalties for existing laws. These would apply to offenses including fraud, theft and money laundering, "when it involved stealing from the government," Denerstein said.

A key part of Cuomo's proposal includes severe penalties for lawmakers convicted of corruption charges -- if the Public Trust Act passes, convicts would be barred from "lobbying, contracting, receiving state funding or doing business with the state," Cuomo's office wrote in an announcement Tuesday. That would essentially remove the option of a lucrative post-political career enjoyed by several convicted lawmakers.

Loopholes in current state laws that increase the burden of proof for prosecutors and determine the scope of the immunity for witnesses would be closed, so that they mirror federal laws, Denerstein said.

STRING OF HUDSON VALLEY ARRESTS

Cuomo's proposal comes after six politicians -- including a state senator, a New York City councilman and Spring Valley's mayor and deputy mayor -- were arrested in an alleged conspiracy to get state Sen. Malcolm Smith (D-Queens) on the GOP ticket in New York City's mayoral race. Spring Valley Mayor Noramie Jasmin and Deputy Mayor Joseph A. Desmaret are accused of taking cash bribes in exchange for approving a land deal to help members of the conspiracy funnel payoffs, prosecutors said.

Those arrests are just the latest among recent high-profile political corruption cases, many of them involving prominent Hudson Valley lawmakers. Among them: former Republican state Sen. Nick Spano of Yonkers, who pleaded guilty to federal tax evasion last year; former Republican state Sen. Vincent "Uncle Vinny" Leibell, the Putnam County power broker who ended a three decades-long political career with convictions for bribery and tax evasion; and former state Sen. Pedro Espada, a Bronx Democrat who was convicted of embezzling money from a federally funded health clinic he founded. Espada riled voters further when it was revealed he didn't even live in his own district -- Espada lived in a spacious Mamaroneck home while keeping an empty apartment in the Bronx he claimed as his official residence.

And then there are the prominent New York politicians whose careers ended in embarrassment for personal behavior, including former Gov. Eliot Spitzer and former Rep. Anthony Weiner, both of whom resigned after sex scandals.

One of the state's longtime power brokers, former Republican state Sen. Joseph Bruno, was convicted on fraud charges in 2009. His counterpart in the assembly, Democrat Sheldon Silver, remains in office.

Bruno and Silver held a firm grip on their respective parties and were blamed for perpetuating a culture of corruption. Silver, who most recently fended off allegations that he ignored rape allegations against one of his top aides, remains in office. He was first elected in 1976.

That's a problem for the new generation of lawmakers, including Assemb. Kieran Lalor (R-Fishkill), who was elected last year. Lalor said he supports Cuomo's proposal to give prosecutors more tools to fight corruption, but said the move is akin to treating symptoms and not a disease.

"It's never going to change in Albany as long as Sheldon Silver's there," Lalor said. "It's one tiny step and when we need to take 100 great strides."

Silver spokesman Michael Whyland said Silver had no comment.

'PROFOUND PROBLEMS'

A real crackdown on corruption, Lalor said, would address everything from campaign financing to so-called pork.

"There are more profound problems here," said Dan Feldman, a former state assemblyman from Queens and current professor of public management at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.

CORRUPTION 'INEVITABLE?'

Because party leaders in New York wield enormous power over their members, any real effort to stamp out public corruption must weaken their influence, Feldman said. Lawmakers must be freed from the reciprocity system that feeds Albany's backroom deals, he said.

"Institutions need a shaking ... to have people be in leadership for this length of time," Feldman said, means corruption "is inevitable."

But punishment is akin to "locking the barn door after the horse is gone," Latimer said. The real purpose of the penalties, he said, is to prevent lawmakers from breaking the law in the first place. Despite current laws, Latimer said, it's clear some politicians think the risk is worth the potential reward, even if that reward is just a sack of $5,000 in cash.

"You'd think losing the position, the shame and embarrassment, and then in addition to that going to jail, you'd think that'd be sufficient deterrent," Latimer said. "When the penalty gets high enough, you look at this and say it is just not worth it."

Joan Gralla contributed to this story.

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