April 10, 2013
Minutes after state Sen. Malcolm Smith was arrested on bribery charges last Tuesday morning, the Queens Democrat was stripped of his committee chairmanships and the placards with his name were removed from walls and desks.
Just two days later, in a completely unrelated bribery scandal, Assemblyman Eric Stevenson, D-Bronx, was arrested and a second assemblyman resigned in a deal with prosecutors. Since 2000, 26 sitting New York state legislators have been indicted, arrested, or implicated in corruptions scandals. In Albany, it seems, the arrest of a member of the Legislature is just another day at the office.
It is tempting when faced with these instances of corruption to talk about law enforcement and prosecution, but you cannot stamp out widespread corruption with individual law enforcement. If convicted, Smith faces up to 45 years in prison, yet that was apparently insufficient incentive to abide by the law. Something else is at work. As U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said at his news conference about the Smith indictments, “a show-me-the-money culture seems to pervade every level of New York government.”
Over 40 years ago, faced with allegations of rampant corruption in the New York City Police Department, Mayor John Lindsay appointed the Knapp Commission to investigate and make recommendations. It confirmed the corruption, and proposed a series of systems reforms to change incentives to change behaviors. Together with enforcement and further reforms, they transformed the culture of the NYPD.
While a commission would almost certainly root out additional instances of wrongdoing, we need not wait to address the culture of corruption in Albany. Systemic corruption requires systems changes, and the most important is waiting to be passed: Gov. Andrew Cuomo‘s proposal to pass comprehensive campaign finance legislation. When candidates can pay for their campaigns by soliciting small contributions from local residents matched by a limited amount of public funding, it decreases their dependence on and exposure to large contributions and focuses their attention on regular constituents.
When combined with transparency of campaign funds and a functional and effective enforcement agency, such a system increases competition, participation, and accountability, all of which will decrease corruption.
At a recent speech to business leaders who support his reform proposals, Gov. Cuomo remarked that “the people in this state, people across the country, they have become dissociated from their government. And they just don’t believe, and they don’t trust, and they think the government isn’t about them. And that is a killer because every relationship is only as good as its level of trust.”
No single change can eliminate corruption in Albany. There will always be those brazen or craven enough to break whatever laws exist. But the honest politicians in Albany deserve to be part of a system that inspires the trust and confidence of their constituents, and New Yorkers deserve honest politicians.
Frank Serpico, the intrepid cop whose investigations led to the formation of the Knapp Commission, said in his testimony: “Ten percent of the cops in New York City are absolutely corrupt, 10 percent are absolutely honest, and the other 80 percent — they wish they were honest.” He and the commissioners understood that you’re less likely to pull a rotten apple from a clean barrel than one infested with worms.