Over the last decade, when New Yorkers read their newspapers in the morning, chances were that they would see some news about public corruption. They learned about pay-to-play, single-source contracts and no-show jobs. They shook their heads at how their trusted leaders abused power and robbed taxpayers.
Because of aggressive and effective work by federal prosecutors, however, many dirty politicians were indicted and convicted. Even if there was corruption, there was also punishment.
Not so much anymore. Now when New Yorkers open their papers, they read about how dirty politicians got away with it.
Four of New York’s legislative leaders who were convicted on corruption charges have now had their convictions overturned or vacated. Among those are former state Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno; former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver; and now Bruno’s replacement, Dean Skelos, who had his case overturned this week.
Those three were found to have shamelessly abused their positions to bilk taxpayers. Even worse, courts found they used their power to upend democracy. Now they’re free. So what happened?
In short, we’ve let the federal government clean up our messes for years, and their mop just got much smaller.
A single Supreme Court ruling from last June involving former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell narrowed the definition of what constitutes an “official act” by a public official, making it much more difficult for the feds to try public corruption cases – and nearly all corruption cases in New York are brought by federal prosecutors.
I replaced Dean Skelos in the state Senate. Before that I was one of those federal corruption prosecutors. In my unit there were only 10 of us, left to oversee hundreds of public officials over a vast region. It was impossible to catch everything, but at least we made muscular, impactful cases. Indeed, these cases caught Albany’s attention.
When I became an elected official myself, it was always remarkable to me how my colleagues did not seem at all concerned with local government oversight. The focus was always on the feds.
For instance, one legislator approached me in a bathroom at the Capitol to ask if the clicking sound on his phone could be a federal wiretap. (I told him it was probably bad service.) He did not ask if it was a local prosecutor. And colleagues would regularly talk about the Department of Justice and its Eastern and Southern District prosecutors – but never the state’s Joint Committee on Professional Ethics or local district attorneys.
Why is that? Well the numbers back up their fears. Very few meaningful public corruption cases have been brought by local DAs in recent history. And it’s certainly not because district attorneys don’t want to prosecute public corruption. In fact, many are chomping at the bit. It’s because New York’s public corruption laws are so weak, they’re nearly non-existent.
That’s why I’ve proposed a package of legislation to shift the power back to our local prosecutors. With the feds’ ability to prosecute public corruption weakened by the McDonnell decision, we should be policing ourselves. So let’s arm our DAs.
The fixes are extremely straightforward: We must improve our state bribery law so that the burden of proof for public officials is not so difficult to establish; broaden the range of charges available to prosecute corrupt public officials and create stronger penalties. We must also empower district attorneys by making it a crime to lie to local prosecutors and investigators. Believe it or not, it is not a crime to lie to them now, as it is with the feds.
Additional oversight is also needed. Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas proposed the establishment of an independent inspector general after her thorough investigation in to Nassau’s contracting procedures following Skelos’s indictment, which charged him with using his power to manipulate that system. Singas’s proposal is a great idea. If counties won’t do this, the state should require them to do so.
We should also have a law requiring those who do business with the state to register with the Board of Elections and ethics boards so that conflicts of interest can be identified much more easily. Those doing business with the state should also be significantly limited in what they’re allowed to contribute to political campaigns.
New Yorkers should be outraged. They deserve action. The state Legislature reconvenes in January. These reforms should be at the top of the agenda. Without being able to count on the feds to clean up corruption, we are more vulnerable than ever. We must take immediate steps to protect our taxpayer dollars – and our democracy.
Todd Kaminsky is a New York state senator and former federal prosecutor representing Long Island.