Analysis: New York: Albany insiders see patterns in ethical mess

By Michael Gormley

Associated Press

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) -- When New York Democratic Senate Majority Leader Pedro Espada went to his Bronx health care clinic during an FBI raid last year, he rolled up in a Bentley luxury car.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, the year before, awaited sentencing in his federal corruption case at his luxurious upstate home on his 125-acre horse farm.

"Does anyone ever wonder how a senator affords a Bentley? How Joe Bruno had a big house?" asked David Grandeau, the state's former chief lobbying investigator and widely seen by government watchdogs as one of Albany best gumshoes.

In the last two years, a dozen elected and appointed state officials have been convicted or accused in crimes. Nine were elected to office. That doesn't include former Gov. Eliot Spitzer, who was swept into office in 2006 by New Yorkers clamoring for reform. He resigned in 2008 after he was named in a prostitution investigation.

But Thursday's federal charges against Sen. Carl Kruger and Assemblyman William Boyland, both Brooklyn Democrats, in an influence peddling case elicited more than the usual, "What, again?" response in Albany. This time, after so many other times, there was something more.

"You have to stop to think, 'Is it a problem with the laws, or something more cultural,'" said Karl Sleight, former executive director of the state Ethics Commission. "That's the threshold conversation that needs to be honestly had, and isn't."

Grandeau, former Assemblyman Richard Brodsky and Sleight handled some of the biggest official corruption cases in recent Albany history. Sleight left the Ethics Commission to join a law practice to focus on corporate compliance shortly before the commission was dissolved as Spitzer tried to create a single ethics-and-lobbying regulatory board. That board was itself tainted by scandal in 2009 when state Inspector General Joseph Fisch accused its executive director of leaking information to the Spitzer administration during an investigation. Fisch's term ended Dec. 31 and he didn't continue in the new administration of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who threatens to empanel an investigative commission. Grandeau's job ended after run-ins with Bruno.

Each emphasized that on Thursday, 210 state legislators didn't get charged but still get smeared by association and headlines of "$1 mil bribe" and "graft." The former enforcers also say proposed ethics laws wouldn't have stopped most of this ooze coming from Albany.

"There are some people in public life for years and years who would never dream of doing anything improper," said Dan Lynch, who covered politics as a reporter and editor in Philadelphia and New York before running for Assembly in 2000. "There are others who get in it solely for the opportunity to do something improper, and then are still others who are seduced by the system, and believe they are more or less immune from the rules."

The unending need for money begins at the start. When Lynch was considering running, he was told he'd first need to raise $10,000 on his own before he could get any help from the Assembly Democratic Campaign Committee. That either means begging friends, or a much easier route: Listen to a special interest group, agree to certain votes before even taking office, and get a big check.

"The temptation is enormous," said Lynch. "They have people banging on doors for them. They have people applauding when they give speeches."

Add a greater need for money when getting into office, socializing with CEOs arriving in chauffeurs, and it can eat away at even those who get into public service for the best reasons.

"You like to believe people get into government for the right reasons," said Grandeau. "The problem is they stay in government for the wrong reason."

"You combine the bad apples with the access to people who want to corrupt them and they are not strong enough to say, 'No,'" Grandeau said. "Congratulations to those who are. But I don't remember anyone turning anyone else for trying to bribe them."

The sticking point now in the debate over a new ethics law is over whether legislators must disclose clients in their law and consulting businesses to identify any conflicts. But Brodsky notes law already requires disclosure of any conflicts. The attention needs to be on the private efforts by lawmakers to influence the executive branch on awarding state contracts. That's perhaps a dull reform if you're trying to impress voters, but it's the crux of most of the recent corruption cases.

"I think there is a sense that the acquisition of great wealth is a value in and of itself and rules are for chumps," said Brodsky, who spent much of his 20 years rooting out corruption as a crusading committee chairman with subpoena power. "You see that on Wall Street and Main Street and State Street ... We should have a higher expectation for public people, but it turns out -- great shock and surprise -- that the government reflects the social order."

"I've been struck by how both heated and irrelevant a lot of the reform debate has been," Brodsky said. "Legislators are being bribed into being contract lobbyists with the executive branch -- 'arrange this meeting, get me this grant.' A rethinking of legislation that focuses on the problems we are actually seeing might be an easier political lift."

Sleight sees unethical behavior as an acquired trait in Albany.

"I think government presents opportunities that you have to have a kind of personal level of integrity that you aren't going to cross that line," Sleight said. "When people come to Albany and think they are invincible, that's when the most egregious situations come in."

Published: Wed, Mar 16, 2011


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