Gee in Buffalo News: Time to Curb Campaign Contributions [Op-Ed]

It’s Time to Curb Campaign Contributions

The Buffalo News

Denise Jewell Gee

April 10, 2013

It must be tough to be a state legislator with all those dollars flying around.

Businessmen, union leaders and lobbyists, all funneling money to lawmakers in the hopes of gaining favor. Sooner or later, you’re bound to get confused between right and wrong, up and down, the legal campaign cash and the kind that can land you in jail.

Some evidently start to wonder: What’s the harm in a little more?

Checks, the kind that come as legal political contributions, don’t just fuel campaigns. They’ve paid for baby sitters, car leases, Buffalo Bills tickets – any expense politicians can even tangentially connect to running for office.

And then there’s the illegal kind, dollars stuffed in envelopes, the type of payoff a politician thinks stepping outside a restaurant will keep him from getting caught accepting.

That’s what the feds have accused Assemblyman Eric Stevenson of doing at a Bronx steakhouse; they videotaped him stuffing $10,000 into his pocket.

Stevenson had already received a $2,000 campaign donation from a group of investors he was helping to open two adult day care centers. By the time of his arrest last week, according to federal investigators, another $10,000 in illegal cash payouts had come his way in exchange for introducing a bill aimed at stopping their competitors.

It’s not such a leap from campaign donations that buy influence to outright payoffs. It’s like campaign contributions are the gateway drug to corruption.

“There’s behavior that’s very similar that’s considered legal,” said Bill Mahoney of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

It’s no wonder the count of state leaders that have landed in trouble keeps ticking higher, with three members of the Legislature entangled last week in two separate federal investigations. That includes Stevenson, former Majority Leader Malcolm Smith and another Bronx assemblyman.

To get elected, you’ve got to be adept at asking for favors and groveling for donations. It’s the same brazen character traits that make someone like Smith think he can buy his way onto a New York City GOP mayoral ticket.

And the heaviest lifting for these guys didn’t seem to be coming up with state dollars to give away or playing favorites with state laws.

There’s Smith, at one point, calling a request for $500,000 in state funds “doable” and later telling an undercover investigator where he could get the money for that “little road stuff.”

“Multimodal money,” Smith is quoted as saying, “is outside the budget, and it’s always around.”

Glad to hear the state’s flush with cash.

So what are we to do? It’s just not enough to hope the feds catch the corrupt ones. We need more accountability and greater controls on the type of legal campaign contributions that lead politicians to believe it’s money that spins their world.

“If Gov. Cuomo is looking to establish himself as a national leader on issues like this, public financing is the one way he can really get this done,” Mahoney said. “His claims that Albany is working again were proven to be a joke this past week, and he needs to take some serious steps to prove that he’s actually working on fixing the system.”

There will always be a few crooked politicians, but we don’t need to make it so easy for them to get hooked on cash.

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