The New York Times: New York’s Legalized Bribery [Editorial]

New York’s ‘Legalized Bribery’

New York Times

December 4, 2013

The panel deputized this summer to investigate corruption in Albany released its first report this week. It is, quite properly, scathing — a damning list of the ways that New York State politicians twist, abuse and sometimes break the law to enjoy the fruits of a pay-to-play government where “large donors set the legislative agenda.” The 25-member panel — The Commission to Investigate Public Corruption — has done New Yorkers a great service. It has provided one of the best guidebooks for reforming Albany’s corrosive culture in many decades.

The question is whether the lawmakers who wallow in the big, easy money will agree to a campaign financing system that slows the flood of tainted dollars to their campaigns. The burden of persuading them to do so falls directly on Gov. Andrew Cuomo, whose task is to push for a new system of campaign financing that provides public matching grants for small campaign donations. This is the most important reform listed in the 98-page document. It is also one the Mr. Cuomo keeps insisting he supports.

The commission, whose work is continuing, has subpoenaed a number of state legislators for details of how they operate. It has not accused anyone by name. But it found instances of “deplorable conduct, some of it perfectly legal yet profoundly wrong; some of it potentially illegal.”

The report condemned the Board of Elections, a bipartisan group that is supposed to enforce the state’s few campaign laws, for its failure “to carry out its duty to enforce the Election law, enabling the culture of corruption in Albany.” It called for stricter laws on the personal use of campaign funds and stricter limits on campaign contributions. It recommended a new enforcement mechanism independent of the Board of Elections, proposed strengthening the bribery statute by making failure to report bribery a criminal offense for public officials, and urged the enactment of stronger laws against “self-dealing,” the steering of a state contract to a company a legislator or other public official secretly owns.

But by far the most important recommendation is a proposal to match small donations with public funds, much like the system that works well in New York City. This reform would make it possible for more candidates to run, even if other candidates had more support from big donors or from independent groups.

Seven of the commission’s 25 members dissented from the public campaign financing proposal on grounds that it was a waste of taxpayer money. Mr. Cuomo and the Legislature should reject this argument. The cost to taxpayers of the matching grants, the report estimates, would be roughly $41 million per year, or about $3.20 per New York resident. One fewer tax break to a developer each year could easily cover that cost.

One in every 11 politicians leaving the State Legislature since 1999 has departed “under the cloud of ethical or criminal violations,” the report says. Mr. Cuomo created the commission to fight this kind of ingrained corruption. It has started to give him the tool kit he needs. Now his obligation is to use it.

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