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70° Good Afternoon

‘Business as usual’ still infects New York politics

Preet Bharara, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District

Preet Bharara, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, speaks during a Crain's New York Business Business Breakfast Forum at the New York Athletic Club on Tuesday, Sept. 30, 2014, in Manhattan. Credit: Craig Ruttle

Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos will be very busy parsing Monday’s Supreme Court’s decision to throw out the conviction of former Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell on federal corruption charges.

So will dozens of state officials currently under investigation and U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who convicted Skelos and Silver and continually reminds the others that he is on the prowl.

But this ruling shows anyone truly concerned with good governance in New York one thing: The infection we call “business as usual” will continue until the state has tighter and clearer rules defining acceptable behavior, limits on the outside income of lawmakers, strict curbs on the size of political contributions, and local and state prosecutors willing to crack down on corruption.

The unanimous court decision reiterated limits on which acts by politicians are considered “official acts” and found that McDonnell’s jury was not properly informed of those limits. McDonnell and his wife took clothing, loans, cash and jewelry from the owner of a nutritional supplement business who hoped to advance his company. McDonnell, whose behavior in the governor’s mansion was despicable, claimed that federal prosecutors criminalized politics.

While Chief Justice John Roberts nodded to the “tawdry tales” that came out of Richmond, he said the court was concerned with the broader legal implications of a boundless interpretation of the bribery statute.

Silver, the former New York Assembly speaker, and Skelos, the former Senate majority leader, were allowed to postpone serving their sentences pending this decision. They will now echo McDonnell’s overreach argument. Bharara says he’s confident the convictions will be upheld.

The justices are also clearly concerned that federal prosecutors may be overreaching on prosecutions of state and local officials. But in New York, it is only the federal prosecutors who seem willing, and only the federal statutes that seem able, to rein in our elected officials.

— The editorial board