After his office had successfully prosecuted the two most powerful figures in the New York state Legislature just 13 days apart, then-U.S. District Attorney Preet Bharara came to Albany in February 2016 to give several speeches attacking the climate of corruption in the state government.
One of the more interesting things he said during his visit included a harsh critique of those in Albany who didn’t do anything wrong, but who also didn’t stop wrongdoing from happening.
“There was a deafening silence of the individuals who, over the time period covered by our investigation, must have seen something, must have known something, but said nothing,” Bharara told WAMC Radio. “Those who learned of suspicious and potential criminal activity in the halls of the capitol, yet said nothing. No one made a call. No one blew the whistle. No one sounded the alarm.”
It was a desperate pitch to the Legislature that it was now up to them to pass new thorough ethics reforms in order to curb what he called the “cauldron of corruption,” or they would be just as guilty as those who actually commit the crimes.
But almost two years later, the Legislature has made extremely limited progress in any ethics reform measure that would really make a difference. Indeed, a month before Bharara’s trip to Albany last year, State Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan called ethics reform “way at the bottom of the priority list.”
Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who campaigned to clean up Albany when he first ran in 2010, says every year that this year will bring anti-corruption measures, yet this spring told reporters, “ethics reform, for example, I don’t see that happening with this Legislature.”
It’s no surprise that our Legislature and governor have continuously let us down in this area. But now, we can add the courts to that list. In July, the conviction of former state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver was overturned. His successful appeal cited a U.S. Supreme Court decision last summer that essentially changed the definition of corruption.
The same case was used in the appeal of former state Senate Minority Leader Dean Skelos, whose conviction was also overturned at the end of September.
Immediately afterward, the U.S. Congress got involved. Not surprisingly, they have let us down too. Rep. Thomas Suozzi, from Long Island, introduced bipartisan legislation that would close the legal loophole that freed Silver and Skelos and is certain to help other convicted politicians escape time behind bars.
I would’ve thought that the rest of New York’s congressional delegation would be the first to get behind this legislation. I contacted spokespeople for the two who represent central New York in Congress — Reps. John Katko and Claudia Tenney — to get their stance on it.
Katko’s office told me he is reviewing the bill. A follow-up three weeks later received no response. Tenney’s office was unfamiliar with the legislation, but assured me it sounded like something the congresswoman would support. After sending her the information on the bill, I have received no response.
Also unfortunately for us, Preet Bharara’s bipartisan crusade against corrupt politicians and Wall Street cronies ended abruptly when President Donald Trump fired him this spring, though his office remains capable, and has already announced intentions to retry Silver and Skelos.
So who can you count on to clean up New York when the state and federal government are unwilling, the legal system is flawed and your favorite political sheriff is unable to?
There is one other entity available, and it may very well be our last hope.
When Bharara told the Legislature it was the responsibility of those who mean well to stop those who don’t, he might as well have been talking to every New York citizen. The Legislature has failed us, so now it is our responsibility. Now it’s up to us to make the call. It’s up to us to blow the whistle and to sound the alarm.
We already know where we stand. A November 2016 Siena College poll found that 97 percent of New Yorkers considered combating public corruption a top priority. Now we have to ensure that priority gets fulfilled.
And we can start on Nov. 7. On the back of every Election Day ballot in New York is a statewide referendum stating the following.
“The proposed amendment to section 7 of Article 2 of the State Constitution would allow a court to reduce or revoke the public pension of a public officer who is convicted of a felony that has a direct and actual relationship to the performance of the public officer’s existing duties. Shall the proposed amendment be approved?”
In layman’s’ terms, we will decide if a politician who has been convicted of corruption charges can be stripped of their pensions. To put this in perspective, Silver and Skelos are currently eligible for nearly $100,000 a year in their pensions, courtesy of your tax dollars. Passing this amendment could take it away from them and from any future lawmaker who decides to use public office for personal gain.
I plan to vote “yes.” I have faith that a majority of New Yorkers will as well.
There is also an amendment asking us if we would like to hold a state constitutional convention in 2019. A convention would give us the opportunity to enact ethics reform measures that a reluctant Legislature won’t.
In the 2018 elections, when all state assemblymen and senators are up for re-election, demand that they address ethics reform both on the campaign trail and in Albany in order to win your vote. And if they don’t deliver, vote them out.
And in between elections, make sure they still hear you. Contact your state legislators and implore them to fight for us by fighting corruption. If you don’t know who your state senator or assemblyman are, there are a lot of resources available online to help you, like commoncause.org. Their individual websites should have their contact information available.
It may be hard to believe, but in the end, we still run this state. If we want a cleaner government, we’ll have to clean it ourselves. And clean it ourselves, we shall.
Luke Parsnow is a digital producer at CNY Central (WSTM NBC 3/ WTVH CBS 5/ WSTM CW6) and contributing writer at The Syracuse New Times in Syracuse, New York. You can follow his blog “Things That Matter” by clicking “Follow” below and follow his updates on Twitter at http://twitter.com/coolhand_luke88