By State Senator Brad Hoylman
I was recently asked to speak at the inauguration of a local judge. When it was my turn to give remarks, I told the packed crowd that the judge had asked me to speak about Albany. Without much prompting, the crowd broke into giggles. It’s telling that our state legislature is a punch line.
I think some of us can’t help but laugh because the corruption in Albany has taken on comic proportions. Consider the fact that the criminal acts perpetrated by former Republican Leader Dean Skelos were so brazen as to have been committed after the governor created a special commission under the Moreland Act to investigate public corruption in the state legislature and after the U.S. attorney announced that he had personally taken up the cause. It’s pathetic, sad – and yes, even funny – that Skelos was so arrogant and inept as to pursue his transgressions while federal prosecutors were busy listening to his every word.
The Skelos conviction is just one example why the public has lost confidence in state government. Unfortunately, there are plenty of other reasons, too. Since 2000, 41 state elected officials have been accused, indicted or convicted of official misconduct, including five legislators this year alone, among their ranks, of course, Skelos and former Assembly Speaker Shelly Silver. In the Senate, it’s breathtaking that since 2008, five consecutive leaders of this body have been arrested.
With a problem this big, what’s it going to take to regain the trust of New Yorkers? Reform at the edges isn’t going to work. According to a poll released last week, 90 percent of voters consider corruption a serious problem and two thirds actively support new ethics laws to fix the situation.
A sweeping problem demands sweeping solutions. To that end, the Senate Democratic conference, led by Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, has put forward a comprehensive package of reforms that would help restore public confidence and the legislature’s ability to govern. The package would close the legal loophole that allows LLC entities to circumvent campaign finance restrictions – a glaring problem exposed in both the Skelos and Silver prosecutions – enact a public financing system for elections, lower contribution limits for campaigns, and retroactively strip felon lawmakers of their pensions.
I’m the prime sponsor of three other reform bills in the package. The first would effectively ban moonlighting by legislators by restricting their outside income and holding them to the same standards applied to the U.S. Congress. Currently, being a state legislator is technically a part-time job. As we saw in the Silver trial, however, this allows members to practice law and other kinds of work on the side that can be at odds with the responsibilities to their constituents.
Second, we should prevent legislators facing civil or criminal allegations from using campaign funds for attorneys‘ fees. It’s deceptive to their donors, to say the least, that pols can utilize their war chests for criminal defense. Campaign contributions should not be used as a legal defense slush fund, plain and simple.
My third bill would explicitly outlaw undisclosed self-dealing by making it a felony for public officials to knowingly and secretly direct public funds or business to institutions or organizations in order to benefit themselves, family members or a person with whom they have a financial relationship. The fact that Skelos steered public money to companies which he pressured to employ his son is an outrageous misuse of taxpayer dollars and should be explicitly outlawed.
It’s been said that a crisis is a terrible thing to waste. Just as Congress did in the aftermath of Watergate, legislators in New York should seize the opportunity presented by political scandal to disrupt the status quo and pass wholesale ethics reforms. A government that operates a $45 billion annual budget shouldn’t be a laugh line. With these changes proposed by my colleagues and me in the Senate Democratic Conference, hopefully Albany can be taken seriously once again.