Two of the most powerful men in New York state government are on trial for corruption at the same time. Voter turnout is lower than it’s been in decades. And polls show the public is as distrustful as it is apathetic.
Yet it’s business as usual in Albany, where top lawmakers shrug off questions about ethics and campaign finance reform while a crisis of corruption and confidence shakes one of America’s most powerful and important capitols.
“No one cares. No one votes. Everyone thinks everyone in government stinks,” said Assemblyman Todd Kaminsky, a Long Island Democrat and former corruption prosecutor. “We are living the worst-case scenario.”
Ex-Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Manhattan Democrat who led the Assembly for 20 years, is accused of taking more than $4 million in bribes and kickbacks. Ex-Senate Leader Dean Skelos, a Long Island Republican, allegedly extorted jobs and payments for his wayward son. He is the fifth consecutive Senate leader to face corruption charges.
Both have denied wrongdoing. Silver’s attorneys have argued that federal prosecutors are trying to criminalize political sausage-making -- a process that while not pleasant to watch is part of the way government works.
“They look at conduct which is legal, conduct which is normal and conduct that allows the government to function and they say it’s illegal,” said Silver attorney Steven Molo.
Whether illegal or merely unseemly, however, scandal after scandal has taken a toll on Albany’s public image. A Quinnipiac University poll released in September found that only 26 percent of New York voters believe current officials are capable of ending corruption, and 56 percent say all current officials should be voted out.
Yet most of the voting public skips the opportunity when it’s given to them. Turnout in the 2014 elections -- when Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo was re-elected -- was 28.8 percent, the fourth-lowest rate in the nation, and the lowest in New York in seven decades.
Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb said voter frustration is troubling, though understandable.
“If people feel their elected officials aren’t helping, they say why should I bother? My vote isn’t going to make a difference,” said Kolb, who heads the Assembly’s Republicans. “People are worried about jobs, about putting dinner on the table.”
In all, more than 30 state lawmakers have left office facing criminal charges or allegations of ethical misconduct since 2000.
“Whether they (Skelos and Silver) are acquitted or convicted it is Albany that is on trial,” said Bruce Roter, a music professor at Albany’s College of Saint Rose and the man behind a proposal to build a Museum of Political Corruption to catalog Albany’s longstanding problem with ethics. “And it is Albany that will have to pay the price.”
Cuomo has also come under scrutiny of U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who is reportedly investigating economic development contracts. Asked recently whether it’s a problem that people getting state grants and contracts are contributing to his campaign fund, the Democratic governor noted that’s not new in Albany.
“It hasn’t been a problem for the past 100 years, so I don’t know why it would be today,” he said.
Cuomo and top lawmakers point to some modest changes made earlier this year including a new requirement for lawmakers to disclose their outside income -- with broad exceptions built in. They also adopted new rules for claiming travel expenses. But larger reforms went nowhere.
Good-government groups urged lawmakers to convene a special session this fall dedicated to overhauling ethics and campaign finance rules. The idea was dismissed by Skelos’ replacement, Sen. John Flanagan, R-Long Island. In response to a question from The Associated Press, Silver’s successor, Bronx Democrat Carl Heastie, suggested there was little lawmakers could do to clean up their own act.
“I ask you guys this question: What do you think, legislatively, we can do that would respond to what either Sheldon Silver or Dean Skelos is on trial for?” Heastie asked reporters.
Plenty of suggestions have been offered by good-government groups and many rank-and-file legislators. They range from term limits to closing a loophole that allows limited liability companies to make huge campaign contributions without disclosing their actual identity.
“The list of undone ethics reforms is long,” said Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union. “We need only look at the trials of former leaders Silver and Skelos to realize that our state has a long way to go to in responding to the crime wave of corruption.”