It’s reform or jail for NY lawmakers

When I issued my New Year’s predictions, I stated unequivocally that the 81-year-old former Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno would not see a day of jail time. Now that the Supreme Court of the United States has made it clear that it has no confidence in the overly broad federal “Theft of Honest Services Law,” it appears more certain than ever that my prediction is coming true.

We saw during the Bruno prosecution that the Justice Department seems sick and tired of the immoral (if not illegal) self-seeking schemes of Congress and the New York state Legislature. Many of the denizens of the deep run what are called “pay-to-play” operations. Since the Legislature, for example, is not supposed to be a full-time operation even though legislators have full-time salaries, some members set up “consulting companies” as separate businesses. If you want to have access to the legislator you hire him or her as a consultant. You’d have to be pretty dumb not to understand how that works. Of course, these consultant operations are just one way to divert money from the public coffers to legislators who want to sell their influence. Lawyers, real estate brokers and insurance people have been known to do the same thing. I mean, if you have to buy insurance, why not buy it from someone who can do you a favor, either now or in the future.

My sense of things is that the U.S. attorneys and the FBI are sick and tired of the game and are now aggressively moving to put a stop to it. Obviously, if the U.S. Supreme Court has now thrown out the major tool that the feds are using, it will be up to the politicians themselves to pass new laws policing themselves. Is there anyone out there who believes that the very politicians who are most at risk are going to be willing to do that? If you believe that, I have a bridge in Brooklyn I’d love to sell you. The prosecutors are aware of how fed up people are with the shenanigans in Albany and where there is a will there is a way. Bribery, for example, is still very much against the law. Misappropriation of funds is as well.

By the time you add up what the legislators are making in their various “part-time” jobs it comes pretty close to a hundred grand a year, and even more with all of the perquisites. There are many New Yorkers who would be happy to work for that salary. Legislators defend their outside activity by saying that their legislative jobs are “part time.” Some of them will tell you that while they spend relatively little time in Albany, they are busy in their part-time offices. It has grown and grown. Each member has a lot of staff who have to be paid big bucks and all together we’re talking hundreds of millions of dollars. At a time when we are about to start firing teachers and police officers in order to help balance the state budget, it seems obscene to keep providing the infamous member items to legislators. These include large amounts of money to some very unscrupulous legislators, many of whom are under investigation by the federal authorities as well as state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo.

The lobbyists figure prominently into this equation. Some of these lobbyists have a long history of steering money to the campaigns of individual legislators. Some lobbyists used to work for powerful legislators, and it is well known that they are the “go to” people if you want to get through to legislator X. Of course, none of this is criminal behavior under the old rules. But lots of things, including the old rules, are changing. Federal prosecutors are starting to look at lobbyists and their close relationships with legislators. Joe Bruno may escape, but he is really the first casualty of this new aggressive approach designed to bring Albany back into some kind of rational balance. No matter what happens, Bruno lost his job as the head Republican in the Legislature and that’s no small thing for the man. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again — these people do not want to go to jail and if they have a brain in their heads they’ll get out in front of the curve and clean up their act. Now’s the time. It will be too late if they wait.

Originally published in the Legislative Gazette, 6/28/10

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