Last week was quite the week for the New York State Legislature, with two of its own (one a former Senate majority leader) arrested by federal authorities in cases of corruption so blatant they bring to mind Chicago’s Rod Blagojevich. Lawmakers, lawbreakers ... whatever.
The former majority leader is Malcolm Smith, who, after losing that status when the Republicans took back the Senate in 2010, made sure he remained a player last year by becoming an “independent Democrat” who cooperated with the Republicans. To Democrats, that may be a political crime, but Smith, according to federal prosecutors, committed a real one by bribing Republican officials and party leaders in New York City in an attempt to secure that party’s mayoral nomination.
The other state legislator busted was Eric Stevenson, a Democrat from the Bronx. He didn’t offer bribes but allegedly took them — $22,000 — from the developers of an adult day care center who wanted him to help them open centers and sponsor legislation protecting them from competition for three years. Nothing out of the ordinary there in terms of corruption. What was extraordinary was how the FBI caught Stevenson, “flipping” a fellow legislator, Assemblyman Nelson Castro, and using him as an informant.
That’s what it has come to with New York’s political system: the FBI treating it like the Mafia, or some other criminal enterprise to be infiltrated. Whatever it takes, we say.
One would think that the prospect of informants wearing wires, as Castro did for a year, would deter corruption. But Stevenson was acutely aware of the possibility of informants — even paranoid, the tapes show — and greed turned out to be a stronger motivator than fear. He also felt he had lots of company among the corrupt in Albany, expressing the belief that “if half of the people up here in Albany was [sic] ever caught for what they do,” they’d be in jail.
That may be an overstatement, but to say, with high-profile case after high-profile case in recent years,
that New York has become a cesspool of corruption is no overstatement. If it is to be cleaned up, the FBI must stay involved; the governor and legislative leaders must support strong ethics and campaign finance reforms; and the electorate must start making character, not political affiliation or pork, the prime consideration in voting.