High-profile year of political corruption
Long Island was particularly hard hit by corruption scandals in 2017, with about 40 public officials and government employees indicted, imprisoned or pushed from office by ethical transgressions and scandals.
This was the culmination of a decade in which more than twice that number of officials, cops and other workers were tarred in episodes that short-circuited the careers of such powerful leaders as former State Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, former Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano, former Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota, former Oyster Bay Supervisor John Venditto and former Suffolk Police Chief James Burke.
Mangano, Spota and Venditto are awaiting trial and maintain their innocence.
The tally seemed to be building steam until it exploded last year. Even judges have been investigated by other agencies, publicly disciplined or dismissed on corruption-related charges.
The cost to taxpayers in waste, graft and confidence in government runs high, but it is not only they who pay a price. Honest government workers across Long Island — police officers, managers and civil servants of every stripe — have had to carry out their duties in environments tainted by wayward behavior and the bias of outsized political considerations.
In some ways, it’s a product of a New York state of mind.
The state ranks highest in the country in the percentage of state legislators convicted of public corruption over the last decade, said Jeffrey D. Milyo, a University of Missouri economist who has analyzed prosecutions nationwide. He said similar data for prosecutions of local officials is not readily available.
Dick Simpson, a University of Illinois political scientist and former Chicago alderman, said corruption endures where machine politics is entrenched. The machines thrive as long as they win elections and control government, ensuring patronage jobs and contracts for the party faithful, as well as opportunities for nepotism. A Newsday investigation last year identified more than 100 current or ex-Nassau County elected officials, top appointees or political leaders with at least one family member on public payrolls at some point since 2015.
“Some states in the Midwest have never had a culture of corruption,” Simpson said, citing Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa. “If they have one scandal, involving one legislator, it’s a big deal.”
On Long Island, in one town alone — Oyster Bay — six current and former officials and contractors and a top political leader were charged with crimes last year.
The plethora of indictments and convictions raises a deeper question about whether, rather than being discrete incidents, they are manifestations of a malignant system that spawns an outsized degree of wrongdoing.
A corrupt culture reinforces itself, said Harvard Law School Professor Matthew Stephenson, who studies public corruption and runs the Global Anticorruption Blog.
“When organizations have reputations for corruption, they tend to attract and retain corrupt people,” he said. “Individuals of high integrity don’t want to work in a corrupt environment, while those who are happy to bend or break the rules for their own gain will be attracted to such organizations where such behavior is known to be tolerated or encouraged.”
In other words, he said, “You might even feel like a sucker if you’re a guy who follows the rules.”