Senator Liz Krueger: State citizens deserve end to New York’s corrupt politics
One could be forgiven for hoping that the conviction of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver marks the end of Albany’s sad tale of corruption. But with the trial of former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos ongoing, and promises of more to come from U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, we’ve got a lot more digging left before we hit rock bottom.
There is absolutely no doubt that a shamefully large number of individual legislators bear the lion’s share of responsibility, with more than 30 leaving office due to criminal or ethical issues since 2000, according to a report by Citizens Union. Much ink has and will rightly be spilled condemning their actions. I have always believed that elected officials should be held to a higher standard — after all, no one forced us to run for office. But the Silver and Skelos trials have demonstrated that corruption is a two-way street. If Albany suffers from the normalcy of a pay-to-play culture, it means not only that too many legislators have been playing, but also that too many others have been paying.
And they’re paying through the nose. Glenwood Management, a real estate company that figures prominently in both trials, has given more than $13 million in contributions to Republicans and Democrats in the last 15 years. The Skelos trial has also revealed highly coordinated donations from groups such as the Real Estate Board of New York and the Rent Stabilization Association. Big money interests from many industries are using every loophole they can to game the system. As a result, instead of a legislature that provides a level playing field for the competition of ideas, we have an auction house doling out special favors to the highest bidder, with real-world consequences that hurt everyday New Yorkers.
There are those who say nothing more can be done, that you can’t legislate morality. That may be true, but to paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr., you can definitely regulate behavior. And although the courts are making headway in tackling illegal corruption, there remains a system of legalized corruption in Albany that the courts are powerless to address. That is why we must act to institute stronger, more explicit ethics laws, to make it clear that buying legislators is just as unacceptable as being bought.
We know what we have to do — the solutions are no more mysterious than the corruption itself. First, we must close the so-called LLC loophole that effectively allows companies to make unlimited campaign donations. I am currently party to a lawsuit, along with the Brennan Center for Justice, intended to force the state Board of Elections to close the LLC loophole for good, and my colleague, Sen. Daniel Squadron, carries legislation that would do the same.
In addition, we must close the side door used by those seeking special access and favors, by implementing common-sense restrictions on legislators’ outside income. Sen. Brad Hoylman is the prime sponsor of a bill to do just that, restricting the type and nature of outside income to reflect Congress’ cap of 15 percent of gross legislative salary.
And finally, we must end the daylight bribery of our campaign finance system by lowering contribution limits, capping “soft money” contributions, requiring greater disclosure and transparency, banning contributions from companies doing business with the state, and establishing a public financing system with low-donor matching funds.
Stronger laws will close off what are now legal methods of funneling money into politicians’ pockets. There will always be those who try to gain undue influence by greasing the palms of corrupt officials, but those actions will no longer be legal, making them far riskier. For too long the pitiful state of ethics in New York has been our not-so-secret shame. Excuses and passing the buck can no longer be accepted. The voters, whose interests we really serve, deserve our full commitment to ending Albany’s crisis of corruption.