By former Assemblyman Steven Sanders
The trial began last week. It is officially referenced as “The United States vs. Sheldon Silver.” It is really about the culture of government in many state capitols… but in this case Albany. The facts in this trial involve the conduct of the former Speaker of the Assembly who for 20 years was arguably the most powerful state elected official with the exception of the governor. The prosecution is focusing on Silver’s alleged illegal activities which resulted in his personal enrichment. It is attempting to show that Silver broke the law and the public trust by taking actions not based on good policy but rather based on enhancing his own power and fortune.
And next week the corruption trial of former State Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos will begin. These two trials will shed considerable light on how laws are made and will peel back the onion layers of backroom deal making in Albany. The result will surely leave a bad taste.
But it is much more complicated than that.
I served in the State Assembly for 28 years until 2006. At the end I was privileged to be near the pinnacle of power in that body as chairman of an important committee and one of the most senior members. I also worked closely with Mr. Silver on a range of legislative issues. Whatever else may be said and alleged of Sheldon Silver, I can attest that he committed his time and intellect to the job. He devoted more hours than any other public official that I came into contact with. And at least in my experience he sought out what he thought was the right public policy on an array issues important to the lives of ordinary New Yorkers. Did he betray the public trust in some of his private back room dealings? I do not know. Is he guilty of pocketing millions of dollars because of influence peddling? A jury will have to decide that.
But this is what I know for sure: When too much power is concentrated in the hands of one individual that is not healthy for a democracy. The rules of behavior for public officials are too lax and cannot be self-enforced. That is true especially of their relationship with powerful monied interests.
And to be clear I am not only speaking about the state legislature, I am also referring to the executive branch of government, the governor. The old adage is still to the point… “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Add to that the easy access to money, either political contributions or government funds, and you have a toxic, corrupt mix in the making.
For way too long big political donors and wealthy corporate lobbyists have had extraordinary access to important public officials and an inordinate amount of influence over how decisions are made and who is benefited. The amount of money which is raised for political campaigns is obscene. And that, more than any other single cause, contributes to the corruption which has permeated Albany and has been well documented.
Fund raising has become a form of legal bribery and subtle coercion in Albany, Washington D.C. and most every other seat of government. When a governor calls and asks donors to give thousands of dollars and even tens of thousands of dollars to his or her campaign, you refuse at your own risk, especially if you have business before the state. Governor Andrew Cuomo who has loudly advocated for campaign finance reform has been amongst the biggest beneficiaries of the status quo, asking for and raising over $40 million in his 2014 re-election, the largest such haul in state history.
Cuomo could have introduced legislation to cut in half the ridiculously high contribution limits and ban corporate contributions altogether. He should have, but has chosen not to. Instead he has mined those sources of funding for his own campaign at unprecedented levels.
I do not know what the outcome of these high profile trials will be. But I do know that until the governor and the state legislature muster the will to rid the political process of big money influence, these will likely not be the last such trials.
Until the pipeline of big political contributions is severed and easy access to public funds for personal or political gain curtailed, the corrosion of government and erosion public trust will not be abated.
It is said that the people get the kind of government that they deserve. New Yorkers deserve so much better.