By former Assemblyman Steven Sanders
In the past two weeks the former speaker of the New York State Assembly was sentenced to prison for 12 years for corruption and misuse of his government position. And the former Senate Majority Leader was handed a five-year sentence for similar crimes. These two convictions, and lengthy prison terms in a federal penitentiary follows a decade of state and city public officials having been found guilty of various felonies mostly having to do with self-enrichment at the public’s expense.
These cases have further soured the public on government and politics. They have ushered in a generation of cynicism about the honest administration of our government institutions.
The first responsibility of our current office holders in Albany and City Hall is to stanch the damage and restore public trust. This will not be easy, but it is necessary. Without the confidence of the electorate, democracy is badly undermined. Without trust in the basic honesty of elected officials the implied compact between voters and those they elect disintegrates and a representative form of government ceases to exist.
So of all the pressing issues facing our city and state, addressing ethics and standards of behavior and integrity for public officials needs to be job one.
Here are four common sense proposals that the state legislature should pass before they leave session in June:
1) Do what Congress did years ago and severely limit outside income. The root of much of the corruption has come from the temptation of public officials accepting large sums of outside income for little or no work performed in exchange of favors to those companies providing the outside income.
2) Close the loophole in the campaign finance law that allows Limited Liability Companies (LLCs) from contributing virtually unlimited amounts of political funds to certain party campaign accounts which are then distributed to favored candidates with no trace as to the source of such donations.
3) Reduce the amount of individual political campaign contributions in statewide raises to no more than $15,000 per candidate, and similar limits for candidates in citywide races for those persons who do not opt into the NYC public campaign finance process. Right now allowable amounts are in excess of $50,000 in statewide races… which is outrageous and smacks of bribery and then favoritism.
4) Eliminate pensions for any public official convicted of official misconduct which constitutes a felony. Those who abuse the public trust should not be entitled to lifetime stipends for their corrupt use of their office.
Should the legislature enact these common sense reforms all crime committed by public officials will not cease entirely. But the incentive to circumvent the laws will be greatly reduced and the threat of losing the cushy lifetime pension benefit may act as an added deterrent.
Crime in government is debilitating to the public belief in fair and honest government and demoralizing to both those outside and inside of government. The vast majority of elected officials are hard-working and honest representatives. But they too are being tarnished by the common perception of what government is these days. Political leaders must live out the words of Abraham Lincoln to insure “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Our diligent officials need to rise up now and save their own respect and reputations as well as the future of our democracy.