It’s happening again.
Rarely a month seems to pass when there’s not some state legislator in New York facing indictment.
The latest, former Democratic state Sen. Shirley Huntley, was sentenced Thursday to spend a year and a day in prison for stealing $88,000 from a charity she controlled. A day earlier, a federal judge had unsealed records showing that Huntley last year had secretly recorded conversations with seven other elected officials she suspected of corruption.
Among them were Malcolm Smith and John Sampson, both former Democratic leaders of the Senate who have already been indicted.
“It’s a culture of corruption, there’s no question about it,” say Seymour Lachman, a former Democratic state senator. “It’s very sad that you have at this point in New York State, the Empire State, more corrupt officials than any other state.”
There’s been a torrent of corruption charges recently, but there’s nothing new about this. Bill Mahoney, a spokesman for New York Public Interest Research Group, says he counts 32 scandals involving legislators or state officials over the past seven years.
“It would be surprising to go the rest of the year without seeing a few more scandals emerge,” he says.
Corruption occurs nearly everywhere politics is practiced, but there are several reasons the problem appears to be endemic in Albany.
1. Single-Party Dominance
For decades, Democrats have controlled the state Assembly, while Republicans have usually controlled the Senate. The Senate has flipped back and forth in recent years, but when it comes to individual districts, there’s hardly any partisan competition at all.
District lines are drawn in ways that not only favor one party or the other, but insulate most incumbents from primary challenges as well.
“Once they manage to get in, their districts are effectively uncompetitive,” says Richard Briffault, a law professor at Columbia University. “They don’t really have to worry about being challenged or critiqued by anyone.”
2. The Hunt For Campaign Funds
Although their races aren’t competitive, legislative candidates still raise a lot of money. The limits for what individual donors can give candidates are among the highest in the country.
Senate candidates can solicit donations exceeding $15,000 per individual per election cycle, while House candidates can bring in more than $8,000.
And the state is notorious for not regulating campaign finance too stringently. The State Board of Elections is run by four commissioners — two Democrats and two Republicans. It takes three votes for the commissioners to recommend prosecution, so only those officials who are pariahs in both parties are ever pursued.
On Tuesday, NYPIRG released a study showing that there had been 103,805 violations of campaign finance law in the state.
In the past two years.
“Nobody’s regulating what they’re doing with campaign finance,” Mahoney says.
3. Insular Decision-Making
In 2006, Lachman, now an academic at Wagner College, published a book called Three Men in a Room. The title encapsulated a well-known dynamic in Albany.
All the big decisions are made by a handful of players. The budget, for instance, is generally worked out by the governor, Assembly speaker and Senate majority leader.
There’s nothing unusual about top leaders controlling major legislation, but the lack of shared responsibility and transparency in New York is legendary.
Rank-and-file members may not get to make much policy, but often they are rewarded for supporting what the leaders craft by being granted earmarks — or “member items,” in the local parlance — or less formal control of contracts.
“The ability of legislators to affect development or to affect public spending in very large dollar figures with an opaque process — and very few internal rules even once you get inside the opaque process — is a recipe for what we have,” says Daniel Richman, a former federal prosecutor who now teaches at Columbia.
4. Media Aren’t Watching
It may be surprising that legislators seem to get away with so much graft in a state that is home to so many ferocious reporters and major media outlets. But the reality is that Albany, like a number of other state capitols, is a long way from the primary population center.
What happens north of Bear Mountain — whether it’s financial indiscretions or marital ones — often stays north of Bear Mountain.
There are too many legislators from New York City to command much individual attention from reporters there, who anyway might have been distracted by a string of scandals in recent years involving local officials and members of Congress.
“There’s a sense that they’re not being watched and conversely that the major metropolitan media focus more on the city than the state,” Briffault says.
5. Lack Of Local Anti-Corruption Efforts
It’s rare for local law enforcement agencies or district attorneys to break public corruption cases, whether for lack of resources or because they too enmeshed in the local political culture themselves.
In neighboring New Jersey, GOP Gov. Chris Christie first came to prominence as a U.S. attorney, having convicted more than 125 state and local officials.
New York Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said repeatedly that he’d like to pass ethics legislation. Cleaning up the culture in Albany would undoubtedly be helpful in terms of his national political aspirations.
In response to the NYPIRG report, Cuomo released a statement saying, “The common sense reforms I have proposed … must be passed this session.”
Richman, the former prosecutor, says better rules are always helpful, but he’s skeptical that a few new laws will be enough to fix a broken system. Bribery, he notes, is already illegal under New York State law.
What may actually help more is a sense among legislators that they can’t get away with malfeasance — particularly when they can’t even trust their own colleagues to keep things on the down low.
“When people realize that members have been wired by prosecutors, that may have a chilling effect,” Richman says. “If you regularly wired up state legislators in a number of states, and perhaps a majority of states, you’d find interesting things.”