The Albany Times-Union
April 2, 2013
A top state Senate Democrat is arrested in yet another money-driven corruption case.
It doesn’t have to be this way. So what will the Legislature do to fix such a graft-ridden political culture?
Good government activists are going around the state this week holding rallies and launching a TV ad blitz to make the ever more urgent case for getting the corrupting influence of money out of politics. Much as we champion their cause, we can’t help but note that they’ve been upstaged in their advocacy. Exhibit A for tougher campaign finance laws, suddenly, is Malcolm Smith — now not just a state senator, but a criminal defendant.
How much longer can state legislators resist the relentless push for public campaign financing? What better evidence can there be of the need for such reform than this case, in which one of their own, the onetime Senate president and Democratic leader, stands accused of trying to bribe Republican leaders to get a place on the ballot as a GOP candidate for mayor of New York City?
Mr. Smith, of course, is entitled to the presumption of being an innocent man in a hopelessly dirty business. But the evidence against him already revealed by federal prosecutors marks his downfall as one of the most revolting scandals yet in New York politics.
And, yes, that’s saying a lot, given the legion of state legislators who in recent years have been indicted, convicted and run out of office, especially in cases that involved the obscenely high cost of pursuing what’s supposed to be public service.
Of course, we have long known that the people who want to win are effectively rendered hostages of the big money that comes from special interests and high-rolling campaign donors. But not until Mr. Smith’s arrest Tuesday, along with three New York City Republican leaders, had the state witnessed the spectacle of a prominent, if flawed, politician accused of trying to bribe his way onto the ballot.
We’re loath to underestimate almost any politician’s vulnerability to temptation and tendency to engage in corruption. But could the plot alleged by federal authorities have been hatched in an environment where political money wasn’t already wildly out of control?
A Legislature with a touch of irony would further the odd practice of naming legislation after people by passing a sweeping campaign finance reform package known as Malcolm’s Law. A Legislature with a collective sense of shame, meantime, would demand tougher ethics laws, with reporting open to public scrutiny, to accompany those new campaign finance laws.
Speaking of irony: The last time the Legislature was at the verge of such chaos was in 2009, when Mr. Smith was ousted from leadership of the Senate. If he were to resign now, the unlikely majority coalition of renegade Democrats and Republicans, which he joined last year, would be left clinging narrowly to power. But resign he must, obviously, unless he can make a credible claim that the voice on the FBI’s recordings is not his.
Then again, who isn’t tainted — in the Legislature and throughout New York politics?
“Today’s charges demonstrate, once again, that a show-me-the-money culture seems to pervade every level of New York government,” says U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara.
Time to take it back, then, New Yorkers — step by step. Don’t let the Legislature get away with anything less than historic reform.