By Assemblyman Will Barclay
It was recently reported that two Albany lawmakers from Downstate were involved in corruption and bribery. One lawmaker, Assemblyman Eric Stevenson, is accused of accepting more than $22,000 in bribes from four adult daycare centers, with the understanding that he would put forth legislation that would benefit the centers.
He is also accused of helping the four co-conspirators obtain building permits and expedite installation of a gas line at one of the centers.
Another Downstate lawmaker, Nelson Castro, has also resigned as a result of being ensnared in an unrelated perjury case. He reportedly helped state and federal prosecutors gather evidence on Stevenson.
Two days before law enforcement charged Stevenson, State Senator Malcolm Smith was accused of bribery and corruption, in an effort to allegedly buy his way onto the New York City mayoral ballot as a Republican candidate.
In addition to Senator Smith, the scheme ended up involving two New York City Republican Party officials and two Democratic officials from a Rockland County village.
These troubling revelations add to a long list of members of the state legislature who have been accused and/or convicted of corruption over the last decade. Primarily, those who have been convicted are from New York City but Upstate New York is not immune. This corruption is an embarrassment to New York State and to the State Legislature. It naturally raises people’s cynicism of government and stains every member of the legislature who is trying to represent his or her district in an honest, vigorous and straightforward manner.
With these latest indictments, the issue again arises as to what can we do in State government to prevent corruption. Very often one hears the retort that you can’t legislate ethics. To that end, some say if an elected official chooses to be corrupt, there isn’t much you can do about it other than catching them and vigorously prosecuting them. Certainly, there is some truth to that contention.
However, I think it is important to examine the political circumstances that has allowed this corruption to take place and examine whether any processes can be put in place to prevent future corruption.
While not all, much of the corruption has been related to legislative member items. Member items are state grants that are directed to entities, usually not-for-profits, by legislators.
In the past, some legislators were able to direct millions of dollars to not-for-profits and the not-for-profit would then, in return, either employ that legislator, or a family member or a staff member–thereby, indirectly enriching the legislative member. In the most egregious cases, the legislators would seek direct kick-backs from the entity receiving the grant.
In the past two budgets, there have been no new member items.
However, pots of money, most from prior appropriated member items that were never paid out, still exist and have been used for other legislative directed grants.
The legislature should stop this practice once and for all and such money should be returned to the State’s general fund. At the very least, we should enact reforms that would prohibit member items from being appropriated when a conflict of interest exists and bring transparency to the system.
Further, why not increase the penalties for those convicted of corruption.
At the very least, those convicted of corruption should lose their state pensions.
To that end, I support legislation that would amend the state’s constitution so that a person who is convicted of felony directly related to his or her assigned duties while serving as an elected official would lose their state pension and retirement benefits.
In the coming weeks, I am sure there will be many other pieces of legislation aimed at trying to prevent future corruption.
All legislation should be vetted carefully.
Already various interest groups, under the auspices of good government, are pushing legislation that ultimately will have little to do with limiting corruption and improving government (e.g., public financing of campaigns).
But rather, these proposals will limit democracy and further entrench those already in office. One thing we all need to agree on is the culture of corruption in Albany has to stop or we in state government risk losing any legitimacy that we have with the citizens of New York State.
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My office can be reached by mail at 200 N. Second St., Fulton, NY 13069, by e-mail at [email protected] or by calling (315) 598-5185.
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