One argument in favor of tough sentencing for public corruption is that it will send a message to other politicians that such conduct will not be tolerated.
Sadly, there’s ample evidence that state lawmakers are all but impervious to such messages.
After all, there’s been a steady parade of New York legislators being forced out of office due to scandal in recent years.
Former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, sentenced to five years in prison Thursday for federal corruption, is the thirty-third legislator to leave office for wrongdoing since 1999, and the sixteenth in the past six years. Former state Senator John Sampson will be sentenced for obstruction of justice and lying to the FBI on May 19.
Given this unfortunate track record, lawmakers can’t credibly argue that they’re unaware of the consequences of using a public office for private gain. They can’t convince us that their behavior was just politics as usual and that they didn’t do anything wrong. The sad truth is that they’ve had plenty of opportunities to learn a lesson from the numerous colleagues arrested, indicted and convicted of crimes in recent years.
Skelos is a good example of someone who knew full well what could happen to a legislator who ran afoul of the law.
His predecessor, Joe Bruno, was tried twice — and ultimately acquitted — on corruption charges. Bruno, it’s worth pointing out, was the exception. The vast majority of legislators accused of crimes have been convicted and sent to prison. At sentencing, prosecutor Jason Masimore made it clear that Skelos chose to behave unlawfully, knowing full well what could happen. “Dean Skelos knew better,” he said.
Skelos and his son, Adam Skelos, received prison terms for conspiracy, bribery and extortion; the elder Skelos will serve five years, while the younger Skelos will serve six-and-a-half. Dean Skelos will also pay a fine of $500,000.
These sentences are appropriate, but there’s little reason to believe legislators will take them as a message to change their ways.
That’s why it’s imperative that the Legislature and governor work to enact comprehensive ethics reform and change the pay-to-play culture of Albany.
Wrongdoing must be punished, but the larger goal should be finding ways to prevent and limit corruption, and to make it clear that the sorts of schemes in which former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Skelos took part will not be tolerated. Rather than wait for U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara to swoop in with subpoenas and indictments, legislators must be proactive, and take steps to change Albany from within.
The state Legislature accomplished a lot this year, but the cloud of scandal has not lifted from the Capitol.
If lawmakers recess for the summer without addressing the corruption in their midst, this year’s legislative session will have been a colossal failure.