ALBANY -- New York tops all states in political corruption convictions since 1976 and two scandals that erupted in the past week appear to indicate that wrongdoing hasn't ebbed.
A state senator has been charged along with five alleged co-conspirators for trying to rig the New York City mayor's race. Two days later, a state assemblyman was accused of putting legislation up for sale, taking bribes to write bills to protect certain businesses. In that case, a fellow assemblyman wore a wire to record some of the most damning conversations.
And though this week's scandals directly touch just three state legislators, the reverberations could be greater. Activists and analysts said the incidents raise questions about why current ethics laws have had limited effects, could reflect poorly on legislative leaders and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, and might influence an ongoing debate about election laws.
New York officials like to tout that they have ended political "dysfunction" in the state. But, largely, that means adopting a state budget on time. Reducing corruption is another matter, activists said.
"Government is functioning better than it has in the past, but that doesn't translate to less corruption," said Dick Dadey of Citizens Union, a government watchdog.
More than 20 state legislators or statewide elected officials, such as former Gov. Eliot Spitzer, have been forced from office because of criminal or other ethical issues since 1999.
New York ranked No. 3 among states in political corruption convictions per capita from 1976 to 2010, according to a recent University of Illinois study. Louisiana topped everyone with two convictions per 10,000 residents, followed by Illinois at 1.42 and New York at 1.3. Pennsylvania ranked fourth with 1.23 and New Jersey sixth, 1.03.
In raw numbers, researchers found New York had more convictions than any other state over that period: 2,522.
Hallmarks of graftThe allegations that unfurled in federal charges last week involved hallmarks of political graft: envelopes stuffed with money, cash exchanged in the bathroom of an Albany hotel, fake real estate companies, bugging devices and pots of state and campaign funds lawmakers think they can tap. It's part of an atmosphere that U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara called "pervasive."
"Here we go again. This is getting to be something of a habit," Bharara said in announcing a second set of bribery arrests involving state legislators in three days. "And based on what is alleged in this latest complaint, it becomes more and more difficult to avoid the sad conclusion that political corruption in New York is indeed rampant and that a show-me-the-money culture in Albany is alive and well."
Bharara on Tuesday accused state Sen. Malcolm Smith (D-Queens) of conspiring with Republican New York City Councilman Dan Halloran to bribe GOP officials to get Smith in the Republican primary for mayor. Smith, it happens, once sponsored a proposal called the "Clean Money, Clean Elections" bill.
The scandal also ensnared the mayor of Spring Valley in Rockland County. Part of the bribery scheme involved a favorable land deal in Spring Valley for informants who allegedly promised the bribe money.
Two days later, Bharara charged Assemb. Eric Stevenson (D-Bronx) with accepting bribes in exchange for legislation to protect owners of adult day care centers. The revelations included the fact that Assemb. Nelson Castro (D-Bronx) not only informed on Stevenson but also has been cooperating with prosecutors for four years -- opening speculation about the possibility of other ongoing probes.
Castro pleaded guilty to separate charges and resigned his office.
Widespread corruptionIn one conversation captured on tape, prosecutors said Stevenson marveled at the light sentences given to recently convicted politicians, such as ex-state Comptroller Alan Hevesi. Stevenson asserted that graft was widespread.
"If half of the people up here in Albany was ever caught for what they do," Stevenson said, according to a transcript, "they would probably be in the same place" as Hevesi, who was recently released from prison.
Smith's fall wobbles his allies in the Independent Democratic Conference, five breakaway Democrats who joined with 30 Republicans to form a "majority coalition" to govern the State Senate. The coalition has said it put aside "dysfunction" to govern with common sense.
Even legislators not allied with the IDC said privately the scandal will reflect badly on all lawmakers.
Citizens Union said the state should give the attorney general's office power to investigate political corruption, put teeth into election laws and enforcement and open up primaries so ballots aren't controlled by political bosses.
A coalition of other good-government groups is calling for public financing of elections. Removing the need to raise cash would eliminate a significant cause of skulduggery, they said. Cuomo has said campaign finance is one of his top priorities for the second half of the legislative session. On Friday, he said: "We must get the money out of politics."
Supporters believe the scandals help their chances.
"We cannot allow the latest scandals to drive us to despair, cynicism or inaction," said Assemb. Brian Kavanaugh (D-Manhattan). "We should seize this moment by passing real reforms that would reduce the corrupting influence of money and help rebuild public faith in government."
With Joan Gralla