ALBANY, N.Y. — Critics of the New York Legislature’s chronic corruption problem say a federal court’s decision to overturn the conviction of ex-Speaker Sheldon Silver is proof that the state can’t count solely on federal prosecutors to clean up its mess.
Federal prosecutors intend to retry the longtime Democratic powerbroker from Manhattan, but supporters of several long-languishing ethics proposals say that’s no reason to wait for the final outcome of Silver’s case to act. They’ve floated ideas including tighter limits on campaign contributions, restrictions on how much lawmakers can make from outside jobs and even term limits.
“It is time for our state to step up,” said Sen. Todd Kaminsky, D-Long Island and a former federal prosecutor.
Republicans favor term limits, an idea opposed by Democrats. Proposals to bring down the limits on campaign contributions face problems in both parties. Despite widespread criticism by good-government groups and campaign finance experts, the state continues to allow limited liability companies to make almost unlimited contributions without disclosing their donors.
Good-government groups, meanwhile, have called for tight restrictions on how much lawmakers can make from outside work, suggesting that the state even pay them more to remove the need to seek a second job. Serving in the Legislature is technically a part-time job, though lawmakers say the $79,500 annual salary isn’t keeping up with the cost of living, particularly in the New York City area. Lawmakers haven’t had a raise in nearly 20 years.
Other suggested reforms include term limits on leadership positions, more robust ethics enforcement and greater government transparency to prevent top lawmakers from making big decisions behind closed doors.
“Again and again we see a culture in Albany that is deeply disturbing and largely unchanged,” said state Sen. Daniel Squadron, D-Brooklyn. “Albany could be doing a lot more to crack down on bad behavior. It doesn’t make sense to just rely on federal prosecutors and the courts.”
Thirty lawmakers have left office since 2000 because of criminal charges or allegations of ethical misconduct. Silver’s arrest, however, shook the foundations of power in Albany and gave reformers hope that lawmakers would finally address a problem that dates back to before Tammany Hall cemented its control over city and state politics.
Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo has proposed significant ethics reforms in the past and has blamed legislative gridlock for the lack of progress. Good government groups say he hasn’t done enough, however, noting he has been successful at hammering out deals on politically difficult issues in the past.
So far, only modest reforms have passed, including more disclosure of outside income. But more comprehensive changes have languished, with the Republican-controlled Senate and Democrat-led Assembly each blaming the other. Members of the minority conferences — the Republicans in the Assembly and Democrats in the Senate — regularly rail against a system that they say hasn’t changed despite repeated scandal.
Silver was convicted last year on charges that he took $4 million in kickbacks from a cancer researcher and real estate developers in exchange for political favors. A three-judge appellate panel on Thursday tossed the conviction because the judge’s instructions to the jury weren’t consistent with a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the case of Virginia ex-Gov. Bob McDonnell, which narrowed the definition of bribery.
Silver’s one-time counterpart, former Senate Leader Dean Skelos, R-Long Island, was also arrested and convicted in 2015, at a separate trial, of using his position to arrange payments and a job for his son. His appeal is pending, and his attorneys are expected to cite the McDonnell case, as well as the Silver ruling, in their arguments.
Supporters of one proposal or another say they would rein in corruption while not running afoul of federal law and the new restrictions imposed by the McDonnell case.
“This should spark overwhelming demand for ethics reform and open government, empowering New Yorkers to hold politicians accountable where the law may fail,” said Brandon Muir, executive director of the nonprofit government watchdog group Reclaim New York.
But some reform advocates see the overturning of Silver’s sentence as a setback that could actually embolden corrupt politicians.
Tom Stebbins, executive director of the Lawsuit Reform Alliance of New York, a group that favors tort reform, said the decision “signaled that government is for sale and has likely opened the flood gates to more corruption.”
Added House Minority Leader Brian Kolb, R-Canandaigua: “The golden age of Albany corruption is still very much alive.”