A Rare Opportunity for Reform

Two years ago, following the use of taxpayer funds to cover up sexual harassment in the state Assembly, I was among those who called for Speaker Sheldon Silver to resign. In my eyes, the use of constituents’ hard-earned money to silence young victims sexually harassed by an elected member of the Assembly was completely inappropriate, and enough to warrant a cleaning of house and shakeup in leadership. 

This year, amid five counts of criminal charges against Silver, the shakeup and cleaning is finally underway.

To many, Sheldon Silver was seen for years as the reform movement’s biggest obstacle in the fight for real, meaningful changes to our state government—changes that would bring transparency, openness and more checks and balances that were obviously very much needed. Now, for the first time in two decades, we have a chance to make sweeping reforms to Albany’s culture and safeguard the state from another abuse of power.

First, we must look at the alleged crimes committed and ask, “How could one person have so much unilateral control without checks and balances?” And, “Why was he allowed to get away with it for over 20 years?”

For years, Silver had control over slush funds of taxpayers’ hard-earned money that he could secretly distribute without legislative approval. It was too easy for the Speaker to obtain $100,000 to silence the young sexual harassment victims, and $250,000 in Health Department grants to encourage a doctor to refer patients to Weitz & Luxenberg, who in turn paid Silver millions.

Court documents also state that Silver allegedly used his power as speaker to influence legislation in order to give tax breaks to wealthy developers in exchange for kickbacks in the form of referral fees from a real estate law firm. He failed to report a single penny on his financial disclosure reports.

He ran the chamber more like a dictatorship than a democratic body, unilaterally preventing legislation from coming to the floor despite overwhelming bipartisan support that guaranteed its passage. And if you publicly disagreed with him, he could unilaterally sanction and strip you from leadership posts, committee assignments, stipends and staff allocation.

All this must change. And now is the opportunity to do it.

Reducing these powers is the first step on the long road to restoring the public’s trust. But it’s not enough. The Legislature must adopt real changes to the state’s ethics laws to tackle corruption once and for all.

The Assembly Minority Conference under Leader Brian Kolb has put forth numerous proposals, such as implementing eight-year term limits for legislative leaders and committee chairs; requiring every appropriation to be specifically identified in the state budget with notification to the state attorney general that no conflict of interest exists; and prohibiting any appropriation to organizations that employ or compensate the governor, a legislator or family member.

Other proposed measures include the forfeiture of campaign contributions by an elected official convicted of a felony offense related to his or her official duties; prohibiting use of campaign funds for personal use; creating penalties for failing to file financial disclosure statements within 30 days after the deadline; establishing new crimes and increased penalties for those who act against the public trust or fail to report corruption; ensuring transparency and easier public access of committee meetings and votes; and stripping pensions for those convicted of betraying the public trust.

A 19th -century member of the British Parliament, Sir John Dalberg-Acton, once said, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Now is our opportunity to truly change Albany. We must seize it.

Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis represents portions of Staten Island and Brooklyn.

 

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