New Yorkers need no further proof that their state is a cesspool of political corruption. But they got another reminder anyway when former State Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos was convicted this week for the second time on charges of bribery, extortion and conspiracy for his efforts to find jobs for his son, Adam. The pair’s 2015 convictions were overturned on appeal after the U.S. Supreme Court narrowed the definition of official corruption. The resolution capped a four-month period tawdry even by New York standards — four high-profile corruption trials of state officials, four sets of guilty verdicts for those officials and, in two cases, businessmen who cooperated with them.
Each trial represented a different mutation of this corrosive behavior.
Dean Skelos was found guilty of shaking down three companies for more than $300,000 for his son. Former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver took $4 million in illegal payments in exchange for official actions that benefited two developers and a Columbia University cancer researcher. Alain Kaloyeros, one of the architects of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion economic development plan, engaged in a bid-rigging scheme that steered lucrative state contracts to companies whose executives were Cuomo donors. Former close Cuomo aide Joseph Percoco took more than $300,000 in bribes from officials at two companies with state contracts.
Despite their differences, the four cases share one malformed heart: The belief among government officials that they can do whatever they want, including using government to benefit themselves.
That kind of thinking robs citizens of the honest service of their government. Worse, it breeds cynicism. Some people drop out of the electoral process, refusing to vote or run. Others opt for candidates from outside the political system, sometimes to disastrous effect.
Whether or not appeals in any of these cases are successful, one outcome will not change: All of us have seen the evidence, and the system stinks. Legal or not, it’s rotten at its core. We saw that in the case of former Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano, who will be retried on corruption charges this fall after his first trial ended in a hung jury. Also to come are the corruption trials of former Mangano aide Rob Walker and former Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota.
Real ethics reform has stalled in Albany for years. Delay is no longer an option. Some bills directly address issues raised in the trials and deserve passage. Term limits on leadership positions would stop people like Silver from accumulating so much power. Restoring and expanding state comptroller oversight on procurement and contracts would have helped during the Buffalo Billion process. Tighter limits on campaign contributions, including from secretive limited liability companies, and public campaign financing would reduce the corrosive influence of money in politics. Banning the use of campaign funds to pay for one’s criminal defense would be a deterrent to corrupt behavior.
Voters, too, can play a role, by voting out any state official who won’t help enact legislation that sets a new tone — that New York no longer will tolerate its chronic culture of corruption.