Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

I Lied, New York

By Michael AlterPublished February 18, 2015

A look at the record of corruption in Albany and ways different groups are proposing to curb it after the indictment of former NYS Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.

He was Assembly Speaker for almost my entire life; governors came and went, but he remained. He amassed enormous influence, and was able to intimidate almost any politician in New York. He preferred to work behind the scenes, wielding power in ways that didn't draw too much attention or suspicion. But over the last month, Sheldon Silver has gotten more public attention than at any other time during his career because of one simple fact: he fell.

            The U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York has charged Silver with numerous counts that can be labeled under the term corruption: extortion, bribery, wire fraud, mail fraud, tax fraud, conspiracy, etc. Preet Bahara, the head of this office, has said in numerous public statements that his office's investigation into Silver is far reaching. After the very controversial disbanding of the public-corruption-investigating Moreland Commission last year, he said he expects his office to go after more politicians across the state very soon.

            Albany has a national reputation for unethical behavior. During the last 15 years, over 25 elected officials, just at the state level, have been accused of wrongdoing. Famously, the way most laws are passed (or not passed) is based on negotiations between the Governor, the Assembly Speaker, and the Senate Majority Leader — the so-called "three men in a room" system. Along with the notoriously corrupt institutions (and in some cases individuals) in Trenton NJ, and Springfield IL, Albany NY is regarded as a by-word for corruption. Politicians campaign across NY on anti-Albany positions, no matter what party they belong to, in every single election. Once they get there, they almost always become co-opted and absorbed into the system. Institutional corruption has proven to be remarkably self-sustaining.

            People have been suggesting ways to eliminate corruption in the capitol for decades; now, with Silver gone, many are suggesting there is finally enough public outcry mixed with changed political landscape to actually effect change. A recurring issue brought up is legislative compensation; members of the Assembly and Senate make $79,500 per year (more if they are in leadership), plus per diem expenses. Many members claim that a salary of about $90,000 is not enough to support a family in NY, and many have second jobs as lawyers, consultants, etc. One proposal from the Democrats is to limit outside income for legislators to an additional 15% from their base salary. While the current system has caused some to accuse members of over-using the per diem clause to claim too many "official expenses", given that over half of the members of the Legislature come from just Long Island, NYC, and the lower Hudson Valley where living expenses are higher than Upstate, their arguments are not without merit.

            A Republican proposal that has been floated is to introduce term limits. This includes limiting top leadership roles to no more than eight years, and committee chairmanships to eight consecutive years. NY is not alone in this country when it comes to its lack of term limits: only 15 of our 50 states have enacted legislative term limits (36 states, however, have enacted some term limits for governor, and NY is not among them either). Bipartisan support can be readily found on term limit bills, but unsurprisingly the leadership on both sides has never been too keen on them.

            Others, like Gov. Cuomo's opponent in the Democratic primary and reformist campaigner Zephyr Teachout, have suggested public financing of elections. Public financing is a system used by only a few states, but with great effect in terms of public engagement and trust in the political system in those states. Still other suggestions include harsher penalties for corruption to act as greater deterrents, pension reform to exclude officials convicted of any felony, a more established public watchdog agency to investigate political malfeasance, and others. All of these proposals have their drawbacks and merits, and in the coming weeks Gov. Cuomo will have to put ethics reform on his agenda in a much bigger way than he anticipated, if at all.

            Term limits are a good start. They should not be limited to just the leadership, though, and they should not be the only solution implemented. A public financing system, perhaps like the one NYC already uses, and limits on pay should also be included. At the base of all of this, however, there should be a basic conversation surrounding this question: what kind of state government do New Yorkers want to have? Should the Legislature be part time or full time, and what does that mean about legislative pay? Should the Governor be so strong vis-à-vis the Legislature, or is a strong Governor appropriate for the state? These questions must underpin the ethics reform debate, because how can something be re-formed if nobody has any idea what form the new system should take?

            The ultimate problem with corruption, of course, is that it is both extremely obvious and extremely hard to prove. When I said Silver made headlines because he "fell", I exaggerated; anyone who knows anything about New York politics knows he "fell" a long time ago — but nobody was able to substantiate it. It was a running joke, whispered when he was around and shouted when he wasn't. This media firestorm was not unexpected; we just had no idea when someone would finally amass enough hard evidence to get him. Part of me suspects he was wondering the same thing. With a new speaker, a public very tuned in, and more investigations expected, politicians, civil society groups, activists, and civil servants should seize this opportunity to reform Albany — before the system has a chance to save itself.

Image Source: