New York State has a serious problem. Political corruption is alive and well, and appears to be growing and becoming more prevalent. Unfortunately, this isn’t a new development. However, it appears to be getting worse with each passing year. There most recent examples involve former Speaker of the State Assembly, Sheldon Silver, and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos. Both were indicted earlier in 2015 on charges of taking bribes, embezzlement, and corruption. Sheldon Silver was recently convicted on most of the charges against him. The jury in the Skelos trial is still deliberating, but the testimony against Skelos appears overwhelming. In addition, the federal prosecutor in Manhattan is reportedly investigating Governor Andrew Cuomo on similar charges, with predictions that indictments will be filed in January or February 2016.
When the indictments against Sheldon Silver were first filed, he adamantly denied any wrongdoing. He vowed that he would be fully vindicated, and that he could prove he had done nothing wrong. The reality turned out to be very different. The jury found that Silver directed a medical research grant to a physician in NYC. That physician then referred cancer patients to Silver’s law firm. That law firm tried cases before judges who were subject to approval by Silver. When Silver’s law partners obtained favorable verdicts he received “referral fees” even though he had never met those patients, had never performed any services, and didn’t practice that type of law. Silver also failed to report those referral fees to the Court System as required by law. His conduct involved multiple “conflicts of interest.” When his case finally went to trial his defense attorney’s strongest argument was that his client was only doing what everyone else did. Tragically, the claim that “this is just how business gets done in Albany,” appears to be completely accurate. It might be illegal, unethical and immoral, but in Albany it is commonplace.
The situation with Dean Skelos is equally troublesome. Court testimony proved that he received political contributions from businesses in exchange for sponsoring and/or supporting favorable legislation. Amazingly, those contributions were technically legal. Apparently those “contributions” weren’t enough. The testimony indicates that Skelos then demanded that those contributors pay a consulting fee to Skelos’s son, Adam Skelos, if they wanted to continue to receive favorable treatment. That was over the top, even by Albany’s abysmally low standards.
Corruption is found in other states besides New York. However, it appears to be a bigger problem here than in most other states. Part of it may be attributable to the disproportionate influence that New York City has over state politics. In NYS much (most) political power is concentrated in a small area, among a few individuals. This situation is facilitated by rules that further concentrate power among the top three state politicians; the Governor, Speaker of the Assembly, and Senate Majority Leader. For many years most decisions in Albany have been made by “three men in a room.” Until/unless that situation changes corruption will probably continue to be the norm in Albany.
This past week billions of dollars of taxpayer dollars were given away as “economic development grants.” These were announced by the Governor’s office. “Regional Economic Development Councils” (“RED-Cs”) from around the state made recommendations that account for 20% of the final vote. This supposedly shows how Albany is making this a “local” process. However, the Governor’s office has the remaining 80% vote, and almost ultimate control. Anyone who can control the award of billions of dollars in grants can sell influence. Is it surprising the Governor can generate millions of dollars in political contributions for himself and his cronies?
By contrast Allegany County has almost no influence. We are part of the Western NY RED-C, otherwise known as “The Buffalo Billion” group. The President of Alfred University is the only RED-C voting member from Allegany County. (County Chairman Curt Crandall is an active, but non-voting member.) Even Senator Cathy Young and Assemblyman Joe Giglio were given no votes. Several years ago, as a political reform they lost their “Member Item” grants. Now the Governor controls all such grants. What kind of reform was that? This needs to be fixed.