Better ethics laws would protect lawmakers

How do you feel when a politician falls? The sentencing of former Republican Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno to two years in federal prison for violating the federal theft of honest services law got me to thinking about what happens to human beings who were once considered political gods. In Joe Bruno’s case, the rules changed and he didn’t even know it. All he did was to play the system to help himself. If every politician who’d done that was sent to jail, they’d have to build a lot more prisons. It began when federal prosecutors, in order to turn the tide of political corruption in the country, started to use a new instrument that had been somewhat reluctantly handed them by the United States Congress. The aforementioned “theft of honest services law” stipulates that when federal officials are working for us and paid by us, they should not be enriching themselves. Well, the state Legislature itself is supposed to be a part-time job. That’s nonsense of course. A very large percentage of legislators have businesses that lend themselves to bringing in the bacon. For example, what if a legislator is a lawyer whose firm arranges mortgages? He is connected. People who have choices go to the connected legislator. What the heck, why not go to the firm of the guy who has connections? Can’t hurt.

Things were getting so bad that something had to be done. One Democratic Assemblyman talked into a wire about his connections and his “consulting company.” Off to prison he went. To this day, Bruno believes he did nothing wrong when he sold his almost worthless nag to a business associate who openly admits that the transaction took place to make up for another deal that had gone sour. As the political scientists say, there had been a paradigm shift. What was once allowed is allowed no more.

Of course, the law under which Bruno was convicted is so broad that it would probably allow the prosecutors to put almost anyone in jail. Judging from the remarks of the various Supreme Court justices when they took up the case, the bill is likely to be thrown out and the various folks who were hauled in with the rather wide net are likely to be let off the hook. Bruno, himself, says that’s what he expects will happen to him but he must have learned something from this.

Bruno does not stand alone in the pantheon of folks who should have known better and were corrupted by the sin of arrogance. I have known them personally and spoken or interviewed many of them over the years. I always liked Alan Hevesi, the former Comptroller and, like me, a political science professor. He fell and had to take a plea. The there was Eliot Spitzer. What a tragedy – he was so brilliant and had so much to give. Anthony Seminerio, a jovial man who went wrong, will be serving the seminal years of his life in federal prison. I have always wondered what possessed him to get so greedy. He had to have known that what he was doing was criminal. He had to have known there would be consequences.

Then there are the others who have not yet paid the price for their greed. We are talking about people like Senate Majority Leader Pedro Espada who is being seriously “investigated” (you can read that “pursued”) by Attorney General Andrew Cuomo and the FBI. It would appear from what we read in the press that he and others took legislative member items and directed them in personally self- serving ways to feather their own and family members’ nests. The defense will inevitably be that “everyone else does it.” But that’s the funny thing about the law — when they get you, they don’t allow the “everyone else did it” defense.

I always ask my students whether, if they were to get elected to the Legislature, they would behave in the same way. They adamantly argue they would not. Most won’t. Some will. It’s hard not to succumb to the sin of arrogance. We need much tougher ethics laws. We need to protect these people from themselves. Governor Paterson vetoed the recent self-serving and pathetic revisions to our weak ethics laws and he was right to do so. This is the time to draw lines so that at the very least we can see who is giving politicians money. I liked so many of these people and I grieve for them and their families. Let none of us throw the first stone. We are all mortal but the whole thing is so sad.

Originally Published in the Legislative Gazette, 5/10/10

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