Editorial: Can Albany ever stop the corruption?

State Sen. Malcolm Smith, second from left, arrives State Sen. Malcolm Smith, second from left, arrives to federal court in Westchester, N.Y. (April 23, 2013) Photo Credit: AP

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This is how entrenched and notorious the culture of "pay to play" has become in New York politics.

Preet Bharara, the latest in crusading U.S. attorneys, recounted a meeting he had with George Venizelos, the FBI's top official in the region, to discuss expanding their already determined and accomplished efforts to put dishonest officials behind bars.

"And I can tell you that he shares my view that corruption should be the absolute top priority for federal law enforcement in New York," he told the Citizens Crime Commission last week.

Bharara certainly has the premier insider's view. He brought the latest jaw-dropping charges of elected officials gone wrong: State Sen. Malcolm Smith (D-Hollis) allegedly trying to bribe his way onto the Republican ballot for New York City mayor, followed by the case of the Bronx lawmaker who, to pay for his own alleged sins of voter fraud, wore a wire for three years while serving in the State Assembly. And the Manhattan-based federal prosecutor's office has already convicted two other members of the Assembly and five state senators in recent years.

Just how deep is this cesspool? Well, the public thinks the legislature can drown in it. A Siena College poll after Smith's arrest earlier this month found that 81 percent of voters surveyed expect more arrests of Albany legislators on corruption charges.

The federal effort is aggressive and necessary. But handcuffs are really the end of the line. The rogues gallery of legislators convicted or with charges pending -- 27 in the last decade -- is only a reminder that reform is urgently needed and must be comprehensive. In comparison, in two other large states, only one California legislator and one in Michigan faced criminal charges in the same period, and neither was related to the official's elective office.

The goals of reform are clear:

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Attract better public servants by making it easier to get on the ballot.

Close campaign funding loopholes.

Enact stronger laws to curb the temptation and punish those who succumb.

Expand the new ethics law requirements on the disclosure of outside income so law enforcement can better track who is paying whom for influence.

Albany is flooded with ideas on how to make legislators more honest. But it isn't likely that substantial change will come from those who benefit greatly from the status quo.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has proposed tougher criminal laws and ways to provide easier access to the ballot by loosening the grip of party bosses. It's a solid start, but banning cross endorsements is needed as well. Third parties should compete based on the vibrancy of their ideas, but often exist to shake down Republican and Democratic winners they support for the spoils of patronage. If the minor parties can't get the minimum requirement of 50,000 votes in statewide elections because of the quality of their candidates, they should lose the automatic right to a line on the ballot.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) has resurrected public campaign financing to solve the problem. Even if he could accomplish that, his bill leaves a big "soft money" loophole that keeps funds flowing from state parties to individual campaigns.

Silver does have one tempting reform that is red meat for a populace fed up with dishonest public servants: Take away the pensions of crooked elected officials. Doing that would require amending the state constitution, a difficult and expensive task, but it just might have some deterrent value.

The Independent Democratic Conference, which shares the majority gavel in the State Senate with Republicans (and a group that once had Malcolm Smith in its fold), wants to close the soft money loophole. It supports public campaign financing, as does Cuomo, but there are no specifics from anyone.

The Senate Republicans promise their own list of reforms, with a look toward accelerating the reporting of campaign donations. But there are no bold suggestions from them and there is uniform opposition to public financing. The GOP says the estimated $200 million cost is just as prone to corruption, and better spent on education and roads.

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This comes as no surprise. The only reason the state GOP isn't on the border of extinction is the deals it made with the governor last year to get gerrymandered election districts. Republicans may be right in opposing taxpayer dollars for candidates, but giving challengers parity to these powerful entrenched GOP senators for campaign contributions wouldn't be their preference anyway.

The natural allies of reform, the earnest public interest groups, are overlooking the critical need for a comprehensive package of reforms, because they're preoccupied with public campaign financing. They point to New York City's public campaign financing law, one of the oldest in the nation, as a better way.

Right now, that's not very persuasive evidence. A motive for Malcolm Smith's desire to run what was a clearly losing campaign for mayor was likely easy access to all those matching dollars.

Meanwhile, the federal criminal trial of the campaign treasurer for city Comptroller John Liu brings new allegations daily of how illegal payments were made to skirt the law. And another Democrat, former Rep. Anthony Weiner, of Twitter fame, is considering a mayoral run because it would be his last chance to spend a war chest bulked up with public matching funds.

One group, the New Roosevelt Initiative, has a more holistic approach. It suggests giving legislators more money so they won't want to get any more, legally or otherwise. The group wants to raise the state legislators' base salary from $79,500 to $125,000 starting in 2015. In return, legislators would forgo "lulus," or leadership stipends, that boost almost every member's income. The plan would ban outside income from law firms, corporate boards and the financial services industry, for example, because of the potential for conflicts of interest. Needless to say, the initiative was dead on arrival in Albany.

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There are plenty of ideas, but no real support, for a tighter set of laws that could stop the crime spree. These latest federal indictments will embarrass the legislature into passing some anti-corruption measure before the session ends in June.

But don't expect anything to change.

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