Sunday, December 30, 2007

Corruption Persists in New York State Legislature

By Mary Cuddehe, Ellen Gabler, and Emily Pickrell
Albany Times Union
December 30, 2007

In a perfect world elected lawmakers would always obey the laws they alone are entrusted to enact, but public records show that, in Albany, lawmakers are anything but perfect.

An investigation for the Times Union by the Stabile Center for Investigative Reporting at Columbia University found that about one-fifth of elected legislators in New York have, by some measure, broken some law in recent years. While most of those cases were traffic violations, more than a dozen involved acts charged as crimes -- frequently bribery or theft.

Currently, two accused lawmakers have refused to leave office despite a mountain of evidence compiled by citizen grand juries who indicted them for felony crimes -- and legislative leaders have done nothing to officially discipline or remove them.

Assemblywoman Diane Gordon, D-Brooklyn, continues to hold office even after the Brooklyn district attorney released video recordings showing her agreeing to receive a house in exchange for arranging a $2 million land deal for a developer. She declined to comment.

State Sen. Efrain Gonzalez, D-Bronx, continues to hold office while awaiting trial on federal charges that he funneled $423,000 in taxpayer money through a charity to finance his cigar company, buy Yankees tickets and pay his daughter's tuition.

"You're innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt," said Gonzalez, who was re-elected by a landslide in the Bronx last year.

Such cases have become a perennial disappointment for good-government advocates in Albany who for years have pressed for real ethics reform that, when it comes to lawmakers themselves, has never really come.

"I think what most citizens would say to them is how dare you do this to the working men and women of New York," said Barbara Bartoletti, legislative director for the League of Women Voters. "You are in a cherished position, voted into office by your constituency, and you let them down; you violated their trust."

Two lawmakers charged with driving while intoxicated this year had their driver's licenses suspended after they refused to take a Breathalyzer test: Assemblyman Karim Camara, D-Brooklyn, and Sen. John Sabini, D-Queens. Sabini said it was inappropriate for two student journalists to surprise him in the Capitol this month with a video camera and ask, on behalf of voters, if he was drunk when police arrested him in Albany. "No, I pleaded not guilty," he said.

Like many lawmakers, Sabini bristles at the suggestion he deserves to be labeled a lawbreaker in the press before his day in court. "I'm only charged at this stage," he said.

Sometimes lawmakers advocate legislation even as they violate the letter or spirit of the laws they propose.

Nancy Calhoun, a Republican assemblywoman from Blooming Grove, has called herself "a prime advocate for fighting crime." In 2005, the same year she co-sponsored a bill to strengthen anti-stalking laws, Calhoun pleaded guilty to two counts of second-degree harassment for stalking an ex-boyfriend. The case was subsequently sealed in Orange County.

Rarely, a lawmaker admits his or her mistake and becomes a determined advocate to strengthen the law.

Assemblyman Charles Lavine, D-Nassau, received a ticket for speeding in October 2006. Since then, Lavine has voted in favor of cameras that catch speeders and co-sponsored a bill to double fines for speeding in a school zone. "In an age in which few accept responsibility for their faults, you may find it refreshing to know that I actually was guilty," Lavine said.

Since 2000, 13 members, past and present, occupying one of the 212 seats in the New York state Senate and Assembly combined, faced criminal charges or were convicted of crimes.

Another 10 lawmakers have had their driver's licenses suspended, typically for failing to respond to a court summons. Another 10 have been cited for speeding, driving while talking on a cellphone, ignoring a traffic signal or driving without a seat belt. Still another 15 had a traffic violation that prompted them to attend class to erase points from their driving record. That's 48 lawmakers implicated in or found guilty of lawbreaking.

One former assemblyman, Clarence Norman, formerly chairman of Brooklyn's Democratic Party, is currently serving a 3-to-9-year sentence in state prison for stealing the public's money and selling his party's control over judgeships.

Adult arrest rates for crimes within large populations in the United States are measured in different, sometimes flawed ways by states and the federal government, but depending on the criteria, they can range from a few percentage points to more than 5 percent. That suggests the arrest rate for the state Legislature, arguably just above 5 percent, may be normal.

However, these are elected lawmakers. While outright crime is the exception rather than the norm at the Capitol, government watchdog groups bemoan a system of legal loopholes in Albany that encourages bribery and a legislative culture prone to winks and nods with only private wrist-slapping for any ethics violations.

"I don't think it's just a few bad apples. I think the system is just ripe for corruption," said Rachel Leon, the former executive director of Common Cause, a citizens' group that lobbies for clean elections and ethical standards for elected officials.

"In most states, if you have one arrest, you get reform handed to you on a platter. In New York, you get person after person after person" arrested without censure, she said. "It's an entrenched system, an old-world style of politics that really needs to be updated."

Voters should not hold their breath.

In March 2007, a sweeping ethics reform bill approved by the Legislature combined the state's Ethics and Lobbying commissions under the new Commission on Public Integrity. But during the bill's drafting the Legislature insisted on a separation of powers from the new commission's authority, which has effectively left lawmakers in charge of policing their own ethical misconduct -- just as they had, or had not, under their existing ethics laws.

In fact, the former Legislative Ethics Committee, comprised solely of lawmakers chosen by legislative leaders, never rebuked a single legislator for any ethics violations during its 20-year existence. That inaction was predictable of what happens when powerful people are left alone to judge and punish themselves, said David Grandeau, formerly director of the now-disbanded state Temporary Commission on Lobbying.

"It is very difficult to perform your job if you're worried you'll be fired for it," Grandeau said. "These integrity commissions need to have not only independence, but there needs to be an effective buffer for the employees."

"You are going to have bad people doing bad things throughout the country," Grandeau said. "What we do have is a structure that enables it."

Albany observers say that a lack of campaign finance control contributes to corrupt behavior.

New York's current campaign finance laws let corporations receiving economic development aid and unions benefiting from public contracts contribute huge sums to politicians, creating the perception of a "pay-to-play" system, according to a 2006 Brennan Center for Justice study. Direct corporate donations to politicians are illegal in federal elections.

Some New York legislators have gone to town with their campaign funds, financing everything from lavish vacations to college tuition to private cellphone bills. In 2001, Senate Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno, a Republican, used campaign funds to buy a swimming pool cover for his property in Brunswick, later claiming that he used the area for political events.

Former state Sen. Guy Velella, R-Bronx, used his campaign funds for his legal defense against charges he had accepted bribes. He eventually pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges for steering public works contracts to favored bidders who, in turn, made payments to law firms he controlled.

A lawmaker accused of a crime in New York does not automatically lose office. Some win re-election. Some don't even try.

Former state Sen. John "Randy" Kuhl Jr., R-Hammondsport, pleaded guilty to driving while intoxicated in September 1997. That conviction surfaced in 2004, when he was elected U.S. representative of the 29th District.

In 2003, former Assemblywoman Gloria Davis, D-Bronx, agreed to resign and spent two months in jail for collecting state travel expenses for free automobile trips to Albany. She also admitted receiving $24,000 from a contractor she helped reward with an $880,000 contract. Though former Assemblyman Roger Green, D-Brooklyn, was convicted of petty larceny in 2004 for also using free rides, he was re-elected.

In 2006, former assemblyman and labor leader Brian McLaughlin, D-Queens, pleaded not guilty to 44 charges, including labor bribery and money-laundering. He was indicted for stealing $2.2 million from, among other groups, a Little League baseball team. McLaughlin resigned.

Former Sen. Ada Smith, D-Queens, was found guilty of second-degree harassment in Albany for throwing hot coffee at an aide who had commented on her weight. She was fined $250, ran for re-election in 2006 and lost in a primary race.

"What all these indictments say generally about Albany is that the environment is still ripe" for corruption, said Bartoletti of the League of Women Voters. "Until we close loopholes on ethics and campaign reform, we'll continue to have these kinds of problems," Bartoletti said. "We have the most loophole-ridden law in the nation."

This year's ethics reform law has been widely panned as ineffective and an agreement for some campaign finance reform fell apart amid squabbling between Bruno and the governor, but some good government groups view the recent conviction of Norman as a sign that accountability is possible in the courts.

Copyright 2007 Capital Newspapers Division of The Hearst Corporation


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