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Don’t confuse political corruption with friendship

Joseph Percoco, right, exits a federal courthouse in

Joseph Percoco, right, exits a federal courthouse in Manhattan after being found guilty on corruption charges March 13, 2018. Percoco was convicted on three counts and acquitted of three counts. He faces up to 50 years in prison and will be sentenced on June 11. Credit: Charles Eckert

The envelope of cash, the fancy vacation, the expensive watch or even that wonderfully phrased “low-show” high-paying job for a relative are always mere gifts between friends. That’s the fashionable defense these days for elected officials and their associates on trial for allegedly accepting what federal prosectors call a bribe or a kickback.

That has been the core response of Edward Mangano, the former Nassau County executive, and John Venditto, the former Oyster Bay supervisor, who are on trial on charges of official corruption. Joseph Percoco, a former top aide to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo who was convicted of corruption charges Tuesday, also tried that play. New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez succeeded with that defense to explain a trip to Paris and $600,000 in campaign contributions from a wealthy ophthalmologist. His Newark trial ended in a hung jury and the Justice Department later dismissed the charges. Dean Skelos, the former State Senate majority leader, faces a retrial on charges that he used his influence to get a job for his son, Adam, after his conviction was overturned.

The elected official or friend is usually indicted on a charge of delivering a lucrative government contract or benefit. Those we elect often expect these gifts, and those who want to do business with government believe that’s how they must act. This behavior breeds a corrosive cynicism and distrust of the political process.

Restaurateur Harendra Singh, the government’s star witness in the Mangano-Venditto trial, testified Thursday that he first learned this lesson when he wanted to run a concession at a Town of Oyster Bay golf course. “If you know the right people, the right thing would be done by you,” he told the jury.

That trial is just beginning, and the jury could determine that Singh was indeed a munificent friend. In Percoco’s case, the jury found that almost $300,000 paid to his wife for a “low-show” job teaching fourth-graders about energy was really a bribe from companies that wanted the powerful operative to deliver favors, such as relief from the state’s expensive labor-construction rules.

Evidence at trial revealed that Percoco was still allowed to use his office in the governor’s chamber even after he left the state payroll to work on Cuomo’s re-election campaign. Cuomo said the rules have been changed to prevent that abuse of power.

No law will stop someone with bad intentions. What must change is the legal business-as-usual that can allow criminal behavior. Cuomo is being tone deaf regarding serious concerns about Albany’s unsavory culture that prosecutors detailed in the case.

Cuomo has promised new laws to help return integrity to state government. He still hasn’t persuaded the State Legislature. The most comprehensive way to curb corruption is public campaign financing, but there are other effective steps. Many states and cities bar campaign contributions from lobbyists or corporations doing business with a government entity for a certain period, say two years, before or after an election. Additionally, the ceiling on contributions must be lowered, and loopholes that undermine those limits and frustrate transparency must be eliminated.

Until the money is squeezed out of politics, the “gifts” will continue. — The editorial board