Rampant Political Corruption

by E. J. Sieyes

Governor Cuomo and his administration present a marvelous media image about attacking political corruption in New York. Yet on probing more deeply we see little real impact and are compelled to raise the question as to whether this is a sincere effort or only a political maneuver to remove obstacles to the partisan apparatus of a Cuomo political machine.

A couple months ago, attorney Preet Bharara told the newly established Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption that political corruption in New York State is rampant and has reached intolerable proportions. Political corruption appears at all levels of state government, and as reported by William Rashbaum on October 29th, is not limited to elected officials. While predominant in the Democratic Party, political corruption infects both major parties, and rather than openly cooperating with the Commission and Governor Cuomo’s initiative to clean up the state government, both parties appear to be circling their wagons to ride out the storm. For example, both political parties, Republicans and the Independent Democrats, and Democrats have hired legal representation to “address requests for information” on matters of ethics and corruption.

Last May, in noting the recent torrent of corruption charges against state officials, Alan Greenblatt analyzed the reasons why New York has descended into this mire ofpolitical corruption.

1. Perpetual dominance by a single party constrains voter choice and insulates incumbents from primary election challenges, and provides elected officials the opportunity and longevity to engage in questionable activities.

2. Campaign funding regulation is notoriously lax, with the State Board of Elections run by two Democrat and two Republican commissioners. Bill Mahoney, of the New York Public Interest Research Group, noted that for the past two years there have been 103,805 violations of New York State’s Campaign Finance Law.

3. Autocratic administration, where major high dollar decisions are made by Party Leaders with little to no transparency and public accountability. Support for these decisions by the Republican and Democratic rank-and-file are rewarded by measures such as “earmarks”, those pork barrel payoffs termed “member items”, or control over the provisions of and who receives state contracts in their districts.

4. A lack of media scrutiny. With the state capital a three hour drive from the New York City metropolitan area, investigative reporters often need to rely on remote sources and reporting by media affiliates in the Capital District. While network news in Albany does have waste-watchers and investigative reporters, they do not have the amount of resources available to NYC media to pursue the number of leads at the federal, state, and local levels.

5. Reluctance of local officials to pursue public corruption cases. While Governor Cuomo has repeatedly promoted ethics legislation, stating for example: “The common-sense reforms I have proposed … must be passed this session.”. Reality is that the entrenched two-party political culture in Albany mitigates against anti-corruption efforts, whether enacting new, more stringent regulation or enforcing existing provisions.

While Gov. Cuomo launched the Moreland Commission amidst media fanfare, on April 1st he quietly announced the Commission would be dismantled in exchange for a mediocre list of election reforms. In the editorials, April 12th Albany Times Union Section D Perspective, Casey Seiler and Jeff Boyer posed questions like “why this?” and “why now?”. These are serious questions with politically-suspicious answers looming – has the Commission rooted out corrupt officials from the previous administration so that Gov. Cuomo can replace them with his own?

A system is the sum of its parts. So long as we have two-party dominance in New York, with party leadership isolated from and not accountable to the people, and campaign funding by wealthy private interests, we can expect little progress against political corruption. The remedy is direct accountability by politicians to the people as found in a true grassroots democracy.