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Editorial: Courts make it easier for corrupt politicians to sell office

Editorial: Courts make it easier for corrupt politicians to sell office

Rulings empower dirty officials
Editorial: Courts make it easier for corrupt politicians to sell office
Former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver in the state Assembly chamber in Albany on June 18, 2015.
Photographer: Nathaniel Brooks/The New York Times

We don’t recommend you try this. But if you’re game, give it a shot.

Go in the Legislative Office Building on the Empire State Plaza and take the elevator up to the 9th floor.

Look on the map to find the office of the speaker of the state Assembly. 

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Go into his office, and ask to speak with him. We’re sure he’ll come right out.

Then ask him for a favor. Not a little one. A big one. Something like a large state grant or help appealing your property tax bill or a job for your kid. Ask him to help you pass some legislation. Something like that.

Don’t offer anything in return. No money. No campaign donations. No extra business for his law firm. Nothing.

You’re just an average constituent asking a favor.

Let us know how that works out for you.

On Thursday, a federal appeals court overturned the conviction of former state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who was convicted in 2015 in a case accusing him of fraud, extortion and money-laundering.

His activities helped net him about $4 million in bribes and kickbacks that he tried to pass off as legal fees.

His clients were high-priced cancer doctors and big-time real estate developers who needed and received Silver’s help in getting legislation or grants.

The decision to overturn Silver’s conviction was justified by the appeals court based on a 2016 U.S. Supreme Court decision that significantly weakened the definition of the type of conduct that has to be proven in order to secure a conviction in government corruption cases.

The Supreme Court found that prosecutors in a corruption case against the Virginia governor had to prove some kind of a formal concrete action, such as legislation, had been exchanged in order to show that a public official was abusing his power.

Other “routine” actions, like arranging meetings or encouraging colleagues to consider someone’s idea, no longer count as political corruption, even if the public officials receive money or gifts or business in exchange for setting up those meetings and making those recommendations.

The Supreme Court appears to have made two assumptions about corruption.

One is that everyone has equal access to top political leaders.

And the other is that setting up a meeting or making a call on someone’s behalf doesn’t have value.

The court essentially assumed that anyone — you, me, your neighbor, some homeless person — can walk into the office of a top politician and expect to receive the same high-level access and accommodation as a rich real estate developer or major campaign contributor.

But if you tried our little experiment, you probably learned the hard way that not all constituents are created equal.

On the other assumption, if those “routine” meetings and connections provided by the politicians didn’t have value, then there’d be no need for developers and campaign contributors to offer the politician anything in return, would there?

If this access didn’t have value, then Sheldon Silver wouldn’t be $4 million richer because of the business his law firm received by him using his influence.

That’s why you and every other New Yorker should be outraged today — not only by the decision to overturn Silver’s conviction, but by the Supreme Court’s decision to make it even more difficult than it already is for prosecutors to convict public officials of malfeasance and corruption.

If there’s no chance of a politician being convicted of corruption short of being caught signing a bill with one hand while accepting a giant bag of money with the other, then what incentive do these politicians have to behave in an ethical manner?

It’s highly unlikely, even in the wake of this ruling, that the Legislature and the governor will do anything to strengthen state ethics rules.

They haven’t yet, given many opportunities already.

And even if Silver’s retried on the charges, getting a conviction the second time around isn’t guaranteed, just like it wasn’t guaranteed when prosecutors unsuccessfully retried former state Sen. Joe Bruno on bribery charges after the law was weakened.

All these court rulings have done is make it easier for politicians to sell their offices to the highest bidder.

It might be a good day for Sheldon Silver and other corrupt politicians in New  York.

But it’s a bad day for the rest of us.

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