The conviction of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver is the latest and largest verdict in a seemingly endless parade of New York public officials caught abusing power for personal gain. But, as depressing and exhausting as the corruption cavalcade has been, it is also an important moment for our state — maybe even a pivotal one.
The defense in the Silver case said it all. His attorneys argued that what Silver did was not illegal, it was just business as usual in Albany. That is not strictly true, of course. The vast majority of those elected to serve in Albany are good people who honestly want to improve their state and their communities. But the fact that the former speaker thought that was a plausible defense tells you all you need to know about the startling lack of anti-corruption laws in New York.
Silver was convicted of fraud, extortion and money laundering. But his real crime — the immoral act that hurt the most people, the most seriously — will incur no direct penalty, and garner no jail time.
Silver’s capital crime was theft. He and other officials who violate the public’s trust steal our democracy from us. They remove citizens from the public process and — worst of all — take away our faith in our government, disabling the essential system of civic participation which ensures the representation of the people, and not the self-interested. The numbers bear it out: New York is 49th out of 50 states in voter turnout.
We cannot let this continue. We can do something about it.
First, Albany must swiftly enact anti-corruption measures. The gaps in our law became clear to me as a former federal prosecutor of corruption, prosecuting and overseeing case after case of Albany officials. The free flow of money in politics, the temptation of cash for special consideration, lack of real penalties to deter corruption and weak oversight have been a devil’s brew of poison policy for generations in our state.
For years, despite significant outside pressure, both Republican and Democrat leaders did nothing of substance to fix this problem. This past year I am proud to say I worked with the new speaker, Carl Heastie, on measures to increase reporting of outside income for lawmakers and improve ethics oversight. But so much more has to be done — and the bell for real reform in Albany has never rung more loudly. Let’s start with outside income, which has been at the root of a number of corruption cases. Even the appearance of a conflict it could create is enough to ban it.
Assembly members and state senators should be full-time employees. Most voters are shocked to find out that the individuals they’ve entrusted with their government are part time and that many earn another salary. (In many cases more than their government salaries.) This move to a full-time legislature could be and should be appropriately paired with higher pay to attract talented New Yorkers to public service, as good government groups have suggested.
Next, we need to overhaul our campaign finance rules. Huge amounts of money are dumped into political campaigns from special interests, upending the balance of power in our state. Restrictions on those contributions — including a ban on contributions from limited liability corporations — and much more detailed reporting must be promulgated.
We must also be far more transparent about who does business with the state while giving to elected officials. New York City has a Doing Business List that restricts owners and beneficiaries of these businesses from donating more than a relatively small amount to candidates’ campaigns. The state should create a similar list.
Finally, we need real penalties for lawmakers who abuse the public’s trust. Right now, convicted public servants are allowed to keep their pensions after they’re sentenced. That’s insane. We must prevent these criminals from reaping taxpayer dollars.
With a growing and energetic group of my Assembly and Senate colleagues, I will push for these reforms and more when the legislative session begins next month. But it is also up to New Yorkers to forcefully engage the government that has given them so many reasons to be distrustful.
New Yorkers have to again believe in the government process and in its founding principle that people ultimately have the power. Now is the time to step up. Believe it: Albany is ours to change.
Todd Kaminsky is an assembly member who represents the South Shore.