The New York State Capitol. Photo by Ron Cogswell.
The conviction of former New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, while hardly a surprise, has brought a new round of demands for campaign finance reform in Albany.
Odd fact: Silver’s conviction had nothing to do with campaign finance. But so it goes in New York, where an apathetic and uninformed public tolerates a political culture of quid pro quo.
When Silver was arrested at the beginning of the year, I observed that the state capital’s ethical cesspool had allowed Silver to engage in blatant overreaching for years. On Monday, he was convicted on seven counts of corruption in federal court. Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, was quick to sound a victorious note.
“Today, Sheldon Silver got justice, and at long last, so did the people of New York,” he said in a statement.
That sentiment is misguided, if not delusional. Celebrating Silver’s conviction as justice for New York’s long-suffering taxpayers is like turning on a light in a tenement in the middle of the night, spotting and squashing a cockroach, and then declaring the premises to be pest-free. Eliminating one bug does nothing about the hidden spaces in which the infestation nests.
In New York, those hidden spaces are the legislative halls in which bosses like Silver hold the power of political life and death over fellow legislators, and the dark corners of a state budget that allows legislative leaders, and also the governor, to reward loyalty with generous portions of pork that lawmakers can bring home to their districts.
None of this is changed by Silver’s conviction, which is why The New York Times’ editorial board is probably wrong when it suggests that the verdict may “sound a loud alarm to all the players in Albany who have become so accustomed to the abuse of power that they can’t see how it infects every aspect of lawmaking.” More accurate, but equally irrelevant in the big picture, is the observation by Gov. Andrew Cuomo that Silver’s conviction was “a loud, clear message that the Legislature should hear: If you break the law, you will get caught, and you will get convicted.” (This from the governor who referred to himself and Silver as two of “three amigos;” the third was former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, currently on trial himself on charges of conspiracy, bribery and extortion.)
The core of the case against Silver was that he made a suspicious amount of money from his supposedly part-time position at a law firm. Prosecutors contended that rather than being paid for his legal acumen or his private-sector rainmaking ability, Silver was trading on his powerful state position to dispense government favors to those who were in a position to compensate him accordingly. To which the defense response was, essentially, “So what?”
Steven F. Molo, one of Silver’s lawyers, even went so far as to argue that because New York legislators are allowed to earn outside income, conflicts of interest are impossible to avoid. “That may make you uncomfortable,” Molo said. “But that is the system that New York has chosen, and it is not a crime.”
The jury disagreed. Yet it is clear that Albany has fostered a culture in which using legislative power on a private party’s behalf in exchange for money or other personal benefits is seen by many lawmakers as simply business as usual.
Consider “member items,” funds that New York lawmakers shared with the governor to fund their constituents’ local organizations. While Cuomo has removed member items from state budgets since 2010, legislators pushed to reinstate the fund as recently as this year, arguing that their local pet projects were worth preserving despite the fact that many of the state’s political scandals in recent years sprang from member items’ misuse.
With seemingly no cognitive dissonance, Sen. James Seward, R-Milford, Ostego County, said, “There’s no secret that some of my colleagues have seen prison time over the abuse of member items. I, for one, stand behind every one I have ever provided in the past.”
Even though official member items technically went away (around the same time Congress got rid of a similar practice of providing “earmarks” in the federal budget), $74 million in unspent member items still exists, a remainder of prior funds that have yet to be spent down. And this year’s state budget included $3 billion in lump-sum funds similarly earmarked for lawmakers’ pet projects, The Poughkeepsie Journal reported. While Cuomo cracked down on member items in their traditional form, he consolidated his own hold on grants for local projects, raising criticism that he has not so much destroyed member items as rebranded them while taking the reins himself.
This is a deeply rooted problem, but it is not about campaign finance, at least not in the way that those calling for campaign finance reform mean. The problem at hand is about the ways in which those at the top of the political machine buy the uncontested loyalty of their subordinates with “pork barrel” funds and use their own offices for monetary gain.
Silver’s trial is a prominent reminder that ethics reform in Albany is still desperately needed. It should not, however, serve as a catch-all excuse for any sort of changes the observer wants to see. New Yorkers would do better to focus on the existing problems first, and follow Silver’s case back to its true source.