Absolute Power Corrupts, Again

The British historian and moralist "Lord Acton" wisely said: "Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

We are now witnessing the "Year of the Indictment" in Albany. Two of the three most powerful men in New York State politics, Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos, have been felled by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, the new Sheriff in town.

The crusading crime fighter reminds one of another ambitious U.S. Attorney in the 1980s, Rudolph Giuliani. Bharara has put together very troubling and compelling evidence that both of these legislative leaders used their power to illegally enrich themselves and their families. Even sadder, both of these leaders have grown children who were also indicted by Bharara. In a separate case, Silver's daughter and son-in-law have been accused of a mini-Madoff Ponzi scheme. And Skelos' son was indicted as a co-conspirator with his father, with both accused of exploiting the father's power to get commissions and no-bid contracts that led to ill-gotten gains.

Of course, both of these men and their families are innocent until proven guilty, a cornerstone of our judicial system. Both of these one-time power brokers insist they are not guilty and they will have their day in court. But even if neither of them are convicted, the wiretapped and document evidence released to the public surely indicate that some of their dealings were definitely unethical, at best.

In the case of Skelos, the leader of the State's top legislative body, he is the fifth Senate leader in a row to get into legal trouble. One of his predecessors, Pedro Espada Jr., is in jail for financial corruption. Another predecessor, Malcolm Smith, was convicted last year of bribery, extortion and wire fraud in a whacky plot to get on the GOP line for Mayor of New York City.

Are powerful leaders targets for ambitious prosecutors? Absolutely. But these corruption busters need misdeeds and avarice in order to build winning cases.

Does power corrupt? Absolutely. What about absolute power -- which in this case means being one of the "three men in the room," which provides outsize power to the leader of the New York State Assembly and the State Senate? Well, absolute power leads to feelings of invincibility. And when legislators are allowed to stay in office for more than 15 years (both Skelos and Silver have served more than two decades) then the temptations of a powerful office and the relatively low political salaries they receive lead to some dubious arrangements in legislator's outside income.

We've talked about ethics reforms in New York for decades. Governors and good government groups and editorial boards at newspapers repeatedly pledge that this time it's different, reforms are put forth by the executive chamber or the legislature and then after a few weeks of haggling, a very watered down version is passed and everyone leaves for their summer vacations. There's only four weeks left in Albany's January-June session and most observers and pundits predict that not much will be done amidst the chaos and everyone seems to just want to get out of Dodge.

There are a few somewhat bold ideas that I think could solve many of these ethics problems:

  1. Make Being a Legislator a Full Time Job -- Why do we think that the important work of legislation can be completed in just half a year of compressed decision making? State government should serve the people all year round.

  • Pay Legislators A Full Time Competitive Salary -- State legislators make less than $80,000 a year and haven't gotten a raise in many years. This relatively low wage isn't the wisest way to attract the best and the brightest. It also forces these part-time officials to seek other work, which quite frequently leads to conflicts of interest and temptation to unfairly use the powers of office to enrich oneself.
  • Have Annual Ethics Training at the Beginning of Each Legislative Session -- Former Governor David Paterson is right that we need to teach civics and ethics more in high school and college. But with the changing landscape of technology, governing, fundraising, lobbying and campaigning it would be wise to have an annual continuing education week in the State Capitol.
  • Move the State Capitol for at Least Half the Year to New York City -- The best antidote to corruption, secrecy and lack of transparency is "Sunlight," which in this case means rigorous oversight, media coverage and citizen involvement. There's no place with more sunlight than New York City. This would end the "What happens in Albany stays in Albany" mentality that has been so corrosive.
  • Develop a Robust Campaign Finance Reform -- Putting limits on donations, offering matching funds and having a powerful campaign finance board with oversight has largely worked in New York City. This would level the playing field and limit the influence of big donors on campaigns -- and subsequently on "crony legislation."
  • Institute 12 Year Term Limits for Legislators -- The President of the United States and the Mayor of New York and New York City Councilmembers can only serve for eight years. So why do we think it's wise to allow our legislators to work for as long as they want in Albany? Make all terms four years (right now New York legislators run for re-election every two years) and limit legislators to no more than three terms. This will assure constant new ideas and fresh views on what is best for the citizens of our state.
  • Corruption in government is as old as democracy, but that doesn't mean we have to accept it and not do everything we can to at least limit it. Write to the Governor or your local legislator and demand they champion these six reforms.

    If enough voters like you say: "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore," we can finally have meaningful reform.

    Tom Allon, the former Liberal Party-backed candidate for Mayor, is the president of City & State, NY. Comments: tallon@cityandstateny.com