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McKinstry: Toxic hazards of the multiparty system in New York

Sen. Malcolm Smith leaves federal court in White

Sen. Malcolm Smith leaves federal court in White Plains, N.Y. The Democratic state lawmaker was arrested along with five other politicians in an alleged plot to pay tens of thousands of dollars in bribes to GOP bosses to let him run for mayor of New York City as a Republican. (April 2, 2013) Photo Credit: AP

The first time a political leader uttered the words "Wilson- Pakula" to me, I shot her the look you get from swigging sour milk . . . in August.

The machinations of New York election law are confusing. Few know that a well-intentioned rule concocted in 1947 to keep Communists off ballots now plays a large role in putting ethically challenged opportunists on them.

The Wilson-Pakula Act was supposed to protect the integrity of political parties by making it harder for candidates to run on multiple lines, but what it's done is embolden small- party bosses who too often leverage their muscle against those seeking and holding office.

Wilson-Pakula is named after state Sen. Irwin Pakula (R-Long Island City) and Assemb. Malcolm Wilson (R-Yonkers). The latter went on to become governor and have a span, the Gov. Malcolm Wilson Tappan Zee Bridge, named after him. Their law allows a candidate to run on a party line other than their own if the party bigs give them their blessing in the form of paperwork.

That's often when the money comes into play.

It's now an indelible part of New York's griftocracy, in which leaders bribe, cajole and swap favors -- typically in the form of patronage jobs, generous contracts, campaign contributions, and if you are to believe the feds in this latest corruption case, bags of cash -- for a party's blessing.

Clearly Wilson-Pakula is not working as it should. The cross endorsement of candidates is a bad, if not corrupting, practice. If candidates want to run, let 'em run on one line. Not two, four, or 10.

"Indirectly, these people are trading favors," said Mike Edelman, a longtime GOP political consultant who says that leaders from smaller parties have far too much sway in the horse-trading. "It's politically corrupting."

Wilson-Pakula is the underbelly of the latest case involving six officials -- including four elected leaders and two party bosses -- who are accused of taking gobs of cash in a conspiracy to manipulate New York City's mayoral race, and to make a land deal in Rockland County.

Federal investigators say state Sen. Malcolm Smith, a Democrat from Queens, tried to buy the Republican line in the New York City mayoral primary by paying off GOP leaders who promised to deliver it. He is also accused of trying to steer $500,000 in taxpayer money to a Spring Valley developer.

Never mind having a platform of issues; it seems money does "grease the wheels" in politics, as one of the defendants is quoted as saying in papers unsealed in the bribery case on Tuesday.

Around the state, this brand of politics has fueled the growth of the Independence Party, which gains its perceived power from the growing number of voters who consider themselves independent. Those voters will often vote on the Independence line, making it a far more valuable commodity for the bosses to barter. It's also strengthened the Conservative Party, since so many Republicans want, perhaps even need, to run on that line if they are to win in a state dominated by Democrats.

The power of these lines is why so many insiders from these small parties, and others, manage to land jobs on government payrolls. It's not technically illegal, but it sure does reek. And it's one of the more accepted aspects of the "show me the money culture" that U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara described repeatedly last week.

In Westchester, the head of the Republican and Democratic parties run the Board of Elections. The Conservative Party leader works for Republican County Executive Rob Astorino. The Independence Party chairman has been on the payroll of the state Senate Democratic Committee. And lord knows how many party hacks are buried in corner offices or given contracts by governments all over the region.

Similar things are going on in Rockland, and I suspect that's somehow related to Clarkstown Town Board's 2012 hiring one of the accused -- Joseph "Jay" Savino of the Bronx, with a home in Congers -- to an $87,000-a-year contract to handle tax challenges. Apparently, he doesn't even have experience in those matters. (The board let him go on Tuesday.)

In the years to come, one of Malcolm Wilson's legacies -- the Tappan Zee Bridge -- will be replaced because it's no longer adequate for the tens of thousands who traverse it each day. Technically, it's outdated and considered "functionally obsolete."

The same could be said about Wilson-Pakula.

Gerald McKinstry is a member of the Newsday editorial board.