Citizens Union Hosts Forum on Albany Corruption at NY Law School; AG Schneiderman Lays Out Reform Agenda
- Eric Shapiro
- On March 20, 2015
Every few years, a new scandal brings New York State’s endemic political corruption to the public’s attention. Sheldon Silver’s recent arrest on corruption charges regarding alleged improper use of his position as Assembly Speaker is only the most recent example of a chronic problem that has earned New York the dubious distinction of having one of the most corrupt state governments in the country. One need look no further than the recent escapades of Governors Elliott Spitzer and David E. Patterson, and the numerous state and city legislators that have ended up on the front pages of the tabloids for every variety of misconduct.
Despite New York’s reputation for political malfeasance, it has always maintained a core of civic-minded groups dedicated to combating corruption. One such group, Citizens Union, held an event at New York Law School in Tribeca titled “Can New Yorkers Fix Albany’s Problems?” It consisted of a speech by Attorney General Eric Schneidermann followed by a round-table discussion moderated by Dick Dadey, Executive Director of Citizen’s Union. Participants in the discussion included:
Richard Briffault, Professor of Legislation at Columbia Law School, Chair of NYC Conflicts of Interest Board and Former Moreland Commissioner;
Hon. Richard Brodsky, Senior Fellow at Demos, Adjunct Assistant Professor of Public Policy at NYU Wagner Graduate School, and former New York State Assemblyman for the 92nd District;
Jennifer Rodgers, Executive Director of the Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity, Former Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York.
Following a friendly opening reception at 6 PM with soft drinks and snacks, Attorney General Schneiderman announced a multi-point program to reduce corruption.
Following some introductory words from New York Law School President Anthony Crowell, Schneiderman delivered a speech that included broad proposals for fighting public corruption in New York State. Drawing inspiration from the defeat of the corrupt Tammany Hall machine; and the reforming tradition of Teddy Roosevelt and Fiorello LaGuardia, Schneiderman insisted with dogged confidence that ambitious reform is possible and that “incremental” reform has shown its limitations.
Even as Schneiderman acknowledged his own success in prosecuting corrupt officials with the help of like-minded public officials such as Preet Bharawa, he was frank in his belief that “more cops on the beat” would do little to remove the underlying systemic decay. To this end, he had several suggestions, some attainable and others aspirational. Ultimately, Schneiderman recognized that true, meaningful reform is not possible without public support. He praised Citizens Union for its history of reform and its continued efforts to enlist New Yorkers in the fight for good government.
Schneiderman’s speech struck an effective balance between idealism and pragmatism. Although he has the heart of a moral crusader, it is clear that his time as a perpetually stymied legislator in Albany has taught him the difficulty of enacting change and taking on entrenched interests. But you can tell from hearing him speak that he will never stop trying, even it if means chasing what could well prove to be a political white whale. Whether he achieves his lofty goals or not, New Yorkers can be assured that New York politics are less corrupt thanks to his tireless efforts.
Schneiderman went on to outline, in less than five minutes, a muscular series of no-nonsense changes to the laws that would raise the bar on what is and is not legal that contrasted strongly with past reform efforts. He implicitly seemed to criticize Governor Cuomo’s stated proposals on reform as being less than sweeping, referring to the incremental changes enacted over the last several years by Albany as ” … one charade after another”.
Schneiderman’s reform program included the following elements, many of them long-time goals of good government reform groups such as Citizens Union. First, he called for a bar on outside employment by legislators, and called for them to be full-time lawmakers, including giving them a raise, for the first time in years. The conflict of interest involved in allowing them to be less than full-time has proven problematic as they create the appearance of impropriety for their other employers if they have business or interests before the legislature(Sheldon Silver’s law firm being the prime example of that abuse). This contrasts with Governor Cuomo’s calls for only more complete disclosure on sources of outside income.
Second, he called for the elimination of per diem allowances for law makers – a perk that has been much-abused by lawmakers. Schneiderman called for provision of receipts for reimbursement, and a cap on the amounts. And third, but not least, Schneiderman called for public financing of campaigns to limit the influence of the deep-pocketed donors and put candidates on equal footing. Making elections more competitive would address the lack of real challenges to entrenched, well-funded incumbents. Schneiderman commented on the continuing abuses with regard to the shell game of LLC entities, which are routinely used by current candidates and office holders to get around the toothless contribution limits currently in place, as well as the use of the so-called “housekeeping” accounts as slush funds.
The following round-table discussion reflected the backgrounds of the panelists in surprising ways. Brodsky, a veteran legislator, asserted that a few more laws cracking down on the legislators would not solve the problem. He pointed a finger at a series of systemic problem related to the huge amounts of cash wielded by various interests that, legally, force lawmakers to tread dangerous ground. Only a wide-ranging effort to change those financial forces would change affairs. Brodksy was emphatic that the personal members themselves were not, for the most part crooks, but were merely ordinary people working in an impossible situation. He was particularly dismissive of the idea that modest raises in legislators’ salaries would amount to anything in terms of changing behavior. He had some choice words for the press, including the Daily News and New York Post. He said that legislators had become desensitized to press criticism, which they considered unfair and biased, paying them little attention. Brodksy’s tone and apparent lack of contrition on the part of his peers drew catcalls from the crowd.
Rogers highlighted the temptation facing part-time legislators, referring to a current system of enforcement in which state and local prosecutors lack the resources and temperament to pursue high-level political wrongdoing, focusing instead on purse-snatchers and common thieves. She emphasized as well that many of the worst abuses in government are actually legal and therefore impossible to prosecute.
Briffault approached discussion from a historical perspective, citing Tammany Hall and Jimmy Walker as incidences of historical corruption while pointing to the successful reform tradition embodied by New York Fusion movement, Fiorello La Guardia, Teddy Roosevelt, Wagner, and John Lindsay. He alluded to the necessity of ordinary people getting personally involved and making sure that corruption and its consequences was not accepted as ordinary behavior.
Significantly absent from the discussion by any of the panelists was any reference to the legal and political theory, prevalent in much of politics and the law, that citizens’ use of money for political purposes is the same as free speech and should not be subject to any limitation. That theory, and the First Amendment Supreme Court decisions of recent times, have influenced much of what has happened across the country in recent years, as indicated with court decisions such as Citizens United, et al. One might have expected to hear something from the distinguished panel on what that means in the case of state and local elections, at least in terms of setting the terms of debate.
All in all, it was a very interesting evening, and the audience seem engaged and responsive. It seems certain that these issues will be before the public much in the days to come. For those who care to see more about Monday evening’s proceedings, check out these two articles covering the event from the New York Times this past week … click here, and also here.
Reported by Eric Shapiro for Flatiron Hot! News Blog assisted by Tod Shapiro
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