Even by the standards of Long Islanders inured to the steady drumbeat of public corruption, Thursday provided a sorry spectacle the likes of which the region has not seen in decades. Shortly after noon — high noon, indeed — two dramas played out on stages 50 miles apart, reminding us anew of the shameful state of our politics.
In a federal courthouse in Manhattan, former State Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos of Rockville Centre was sentenced to 5 years in prison for bribery, extortion and conspiracy in using his power and his position to land a series of jobs for his son, Adam, who received a longer 6 1⁄2-year term. It’s hard to argue with Judge Kimba Wood for seeing the personal pathos of a father who went too far to help his son. About the same time, in Hauppauge, Suffolk County’s top two elected officials launched furious broadsides at one another centered on allegations of corruption.
County Executive Steve Bellone, standing on the steps outside the office of District Attorney Thomas Spota, demanded he resign. Bellone cited Newsday stories disclosing that Spota’s office had uncovered possible crimes via wiretaps but then did not prosecute those activities. He also pointed to Spota’s ties to former Suffolk Police Chief James Burke and decried what he called the “culture of corruption” in Spota’s office.
Almost immediately, Spota responded from a room inside the building, saying Bellone’s attacks were personally motivated and part of a “vendetta” against him because Spota successfully prosecuted people close to Bellone. Spota sought to dismiss Newsday’s detailed and well-sourced report, calling it “fundamentally flawed,” but did not address several troubling instances of misconduct described in the story. Then he dropped his own bombshell — that Bellone had other motives for wanting him out. Spota intimated it had to do with “documents” he sent to the state Board of Elections for investigation.
In the midst of the back-and-forth, six Suffolk legislators called for the resignations of Spota or Bellone or both. Call it politics, if you like, but it was not an ennobling moment. And then Bellone held yet another news conference to condemn Spota’s defense and to attack anew. And on and on it undoubtedly will go.
Skelos’ sentencing also took its place in a long-running, if dispiriting, soap opera. Last week, former State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver was sentenced to 12 years in prison and nearly $7 million in fines and penalties for his conviction on a variety of federal corruption charges. Next week, another former Senate leader, John Sampson, will learn his punishment following his own federal corruption trial.
Federal prosecutors have done a terrific job in going after misbehavior in Albany, and are probing Suffolk law enforcement and the politics that flows through it. But the fight should not be left to them alone. Stronger anti-corruption laws are needed desperately. But Albany lawmakers who would pass this legislation do not seem inspired to do so.
Long Islanders have grown cynical about corruption. We’ve seen it at all levels of government — state, county, town and village — and we want it punished. The polls clearly indicate that. But based on our collective years of experience, culminating in Thursday’s extraordinary high-noon crescendo, we also have come to expect corruption, even extraordinary instances of it. That perhaps is the saddest legacy of politics on Long Island.— The editorial board