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More stark evidence that Albany needs ethics reform

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) presides over a

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) presides over a session in the Assembly Chamber at the Capitol on Monday, Jan. 14, 2013, in Albany. Credit: AP / Mike Groll

Once again, New York is shaken by allegations that a powerful lawmaker might have used his influence to enrich himself. Federal prosecutors have charged Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver with pocketing nearly $4 million in kickbacks after he allegedly did favors for two major real estate developers and a medical research center.

Silver, a Democrat, said he will be vindicated. And it's worth remembering what happened after former Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, a Republican, was charged in a federal indictment with directing state grants to a favored business client. In 2014, Bruno was cleared of all charges after two trials, and late last month taxpayers began reimbursing Bruno for the $2.4 million he spent on legal fees.

The allegations in the federal complaint by Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara are disturbing -- as was the prosecutor's showboating news conference. Even if Silver's actions ultimately are found to be just business as usual in Albany, however, something must be done about the state's porous ethics laws and opaque disclosure requirements.

In the complaint, Silver is accused of awarding two discretionary grants, better known as "member items," totaling $500,000 to a center that did research on an illness related to asbestos exposure. Bharara alleges that the center, in return, sent patients afflicted with the illness to Silver's law firm of Weitz & Luxenberg. Silver is accused of getting more than $3 million in referral fees over 12 years, but such quid pro quos, as in the Bruno case, are often very difficult to prove.

Still, the parade of lawmakers charged with corruption has eroded the trust and confidence New Yorkers should have in their leaders. What more motivation does the State Legislature need to enact a comprehensive overhaul of ethics laws that would require full disclosure of the source and amount of outside income, and how it was earned? A current proposal worth considering is to eliminate almost all outside jobs for lawmakers in return for a higher salary.

"Stay tuned," Bharara said forebodingly into the cameras. Before the prosecutor delights in another news conference, the legislature should enact some real reforms.