(It is usually a shock when someone is confronted with the fact that the reality you have believed in has more than just a few blemishes. This is especially true when you believed your way of life and government is probably the best in the world. Still, after exposure, it does not pay to close your eyes to truth. Fr. Orthohippo}
How the Empire State created such a toxic (and criminal) political culture.
By ALAN GREENBLATT
May 05, 2015
In any legislature, the top leaders are essentially the campaign managers and chief fundraisers for their caucuses. In New York, that means big money. State officials oversee some of the most lucrative sectors of the entire economy—Wall Street, hedge funds, Manhattan real estate. It means nothing for an upstate or Long Island Republican to vote to continue tax breaks such as the 421-a property tax abatement, which cost New York City more than $1 billion in foregone revenue last year. That’s not their constituency. In fact, most legislators in New York, as elsewhere, are insulated from political pressures at home because their districts are small and lopsidedly favor one party or the other.
Good-government groups like to refer to New York as “Citizens United on steroids,” since corporations can give directly to candidates rather than having to go to the trouble of setting up super PACs. New York has what is known as an LLC loophole, meaning limited liability corporations are able to give far more in campaign contributions—$60,800 per election cycle—than corporations and partnerships, which are limited to $5,000 annually. Even the higher dollar amount is mostly a fiction, since it’s no trick to set up additional LLCs. Last year, an Albany Times-Union investigation found that four developers alone had set up at least 48 LLCs between them, doling out $600,000 over the past five years. Cuomo, who promised to end the LLC loophole, has taken in more than $6 million from such funds.
Legislation to bring LLC donations in line with other business entities has moved through committees in both chambers this year. There will doubtless be a big push, in light of the recent high-profile indictments, to push something through into law. There’s precedent. Political scandals in the New York City of the 1980s led to significant changes in local finance law. But it’s always tough to change a system that benefits its incumbent members. In New York, campaign finance regulations are violated routinely—thousands of times per year. The State Board of Commissioners is run by four commissioners—two each from the two parties. Since it takes three votes to recommend prosecution, guess what? It hardly ever happens, unless violations are egregious and the official is a pariah in both parties.
It’s common everywhere for public corruption cases to be brought by federal prosecutors. (New Jersey Governor Chris Christie first made his name by helping to convict more than 100 officials as a U.S. attorney.) State and local prosecutors are often too enmeshed in the political culture, or subject to party pressure, to tackle such cases. “What makes this different is two words: Preet Bharara,” Horner says, referring to the U.S. attorney who brought cases against both Skelos and Silver. “If he just kept going after terrorists and Wall Street, none of this would have happened, but his attention was drawn to Albany.”
Bharara seems to have had his eye on Albany even before Cuomo’s decision last year to disband the Moreland Commission, which had been charged with investigating state ethics. Moreland files may have given Bharara more haystacks to start hunting through. But it’s clear that Bharara is offended by the stink of corruption that has long hung over the capital.
It’s something longtime political types seem to have lost the scent of. Being enmeshed in a culture of entitlement, they barely even noticed it. Instead, they continued to make the rounds of lobbyist-shakedown fundraisers held by the hundreds during every legislative session. “Culture matters, and it’s a deeply transactional culture,” says Zephyr Teachout, a Fordham law professor who made corruption the centerpiece of her primary run against Cuomo last year. “It leads to easier-to-catch, old-fashioned cash for bribery scandals.”
Any smart legislator in any state should assume his conversations are being recorded or fodder for damaging tweets. That’s certainly the case in Albany, where legislators get indicted seemingly every other month. The Skelos criminal complaint suggests they were aware of this. “You can’t talk normally,” Adam Skelos said to Dean Skelos, according to the complaint, “because it’s like [expletive] Preet Bharara is listening to every [expletive] phone call.” And yet, they kept talking.
Bharara appears to have plenty of targets to choose from in Albany. It would be most unusual if he were able to collect the scalps of the two top legislative leaders in the state. Yet perhaps it’s no wonder he went after them. “If you want to follow the money,” Lerner says, “you look at the people who are collecting the most money.”
Alan Greenblatt, a staff writer for Governing, is a former reporter for NPR and CQ.