New York is said to be in the middle of a corruption epidemic. It's not. It's in the middle of a law-enforcement boom. There's a difference.
Corruption is timeless. It's been the scourge of government and politics since homo sapiens first began pooling resources. Smart, ambitious prosecutors like U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara come along only once or twice in a generation.
New York is a gold mine for hard-charging prosecutors like Bharara to make names for themselves. (Think Dewey, Giuliani and Spitzer.) Crooked New York politicians are colorful, newsworthy characters. And they're brazen; they practically beg to get caught. "Men ain't in politics for nothin'," Tammany Hall State Sen. George Washington Plunkitt boasted more than a century ago. "They want to get somethin' out of it."
But the case involving former Democratic Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith, who has long had a dubious reputation in Albany, has left many scratching their heads for its seeming pointlessness. Smith was arrested for, among other things, allegedly bribing three New York City Republicans officials, with tens of thousands of dollars, to get himself on the ballot as a Republican mayoral candidate this year.
Smith stands as much a chance of being elected mayor on the Republican line as I do. Even if he were to have pulled off a win in the Republican primary -- and there's almost no chance he could have -- Smith would be creamed at the polls in November. Why would Republican voters support a partisan Democrat, and why would Democrats support a candidate on the Republican line who has repeatedly been under investigation?
So the bigger question is why Smith would go to such intricate and clumsy lengths to achieve Republican ballot status. What would make such shenanigans worth the risk?
For the answer, former New York Post editorial page editor Bob McManus rightly reminded readers this week of the Watergate admonition to "follow the money" -- in this case the matching funds provided to city candidates under the public campaign finance system. Suddenly, there is a motive that makes sense.
The city's well-intentioned campaign finance system is endlessly cited by good-government types as a national model for publicly funded elections. But those who work in the trenches of city politics know it as the cash cow it is. Under the system, contributions collected by candidates are matched 6-1 with taxpayer money, ostensibly to keep politicians from being bought. The system is like a slot machine that returns $700 for every $100 you put in. It screams to be abused, and it is -- year after year.
There will be only a handful of competitive general election races in New York City in 2013, but virtually every incumbent will be lining up for 6-1 public matching funds. It doesn't matter if you'll win your election in a 93-7 landslide; if you are a candidate on the ballot, under the campaign finance system, you are entitled to taxpayer dollars.
What are those dollars spent on?
Fancy smartphones, computers and office equipment for starters, but also "campaign consultants," who can be paid thousands of dollars a month to do nothing (real ones actually do work). Those "consultants" are often friends or local party officials who protect the incumbent from primary challenges.
In citywide races like mayor, millions of dollars in matching funds are up for grabs. Mayoral candidates this year have access to up to $3,534,300 each in taxpayer matching funds, providing they follow the programs' rules. Now, that's a number that had to be interesting to a fellow like Malcolm Smith. Three and half million dollars can buy a lot of friends and influence.
There are also ways to steer matching money into one's own pocket through kickbacks and dummy printing and consulting contracts, if one were so inclined. I have no evidence to say Smith planned to do that with his matching funds; I'm only saying it could be done.
Ironically, good government groups and others are now calling for a state matching fund program "to clean up" politics in the wake of this scandal. They want to add more laws and more "free" money into the mix, as though that would cure the larceny in some men's hearts. Do we ever learn?
The Roman senator Tacitus observed soon after the death of Jesus Christ that "the more corrupt the state, the more numerous its laws." That's as true today as it was 2,100 years ago.
Bharara should look into abuses of the City Campaign Finance Law before the state begins making things worse with "good government" fixes.
William F. B. O'Reilly is a Newsday columnist and a Republican political consultant.