Blair Horner: New York's “Corruption Palooza” Begins

Jan 22, 2018

And so it begins: Call it the kick off to New York’s “corruption palooza; the first of the now seven corruption cases go to trial. It is expected that there will be seven high-profile corruption cases going to trial in each of the first seven months of the year.

The first, starting this week, is the trial of a former top aide to Governor Cuomo. Of course, he is presumed innocent. Federal authorities have charged him with schemes that sought to enrich himself and others through bribes, and using his position to help particular companies receive “hundreds of millions of dollars in state contracts and other official state benefits.” These companies were involved in the state’s major economic development projects, including the “Buffalo Billion” initiative of the Cuomo Administration.

The charges also detailed that favored companies donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Governor Cuomo’s re-election campaign in addition to offering bribes to the now-former Cuomo Administration official named in the probe. One of the alleged co-conspirators has pleaded guilty and is cooperating with federal prosecutors.

When former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara presented his charges, he stated that the governor was not implicated. “There are no allegations of any wrongdoing or misconduct by the governor, anywhere in this complaint,” Mr. Bharara said.

And the corruption “hits” just keep coming. Following the beginning of the January trial, there are six more to come:

  • In February, the scheduled trial of a former New York State Senator begins related to charges from an alleged scheme to secretly funnel campaign contributions into pockets of a staffer;
  • In March, the scheduled trial of a former Nassau County Executive begins for an alleged kickback scheme to help a restaurant owner receive over $20 million in grants and loans. In exchange, prosecutors said the county executive received fancy vacations, an expensive watch, and new hardwood flooring for his house.
  • In April, the scheduled retrial begins of the former state Assembly Speaker for allegedly using his legislative power to drive benefits to favored business clients while enriching himself;
  • In May, the scheduled trial begins of the former SUNY Polytechnic Institute President who allegedly was involved in the economic development schemes mentioned before;
  • In June, the scheduled retrial begins of former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos who allegedly used his power to strong-arm businesses for pay for no-show jobs for his son; and
  • In case there was any thought the corruption tide has ended, in July a just-charged sitting Assemblywoman will be in federal court to defend herself against charges that she used her public office for personal enrichment.

The defendants in these cases are entitled to the presumption of innocence; however, these trials are the latest installment in a seemingly unending series of investigations, indictments, and convictions involving the corrupt actions of dozens of public officials. Indeed, New York has been repeatedly dubbed as one of, if not the most, corrupt states in the nation. At least 33 legislators and a state Comptroller have left office since 2000 due to corruption-related issues.

No matter the outcomes for the individuals involved, the trials will undoubtedly paint an unflattering picture of politics in New York.

In normal times, such looming trials would pressure public officials to act. But so far, there has been virtual silence on the issue of corruption from New York’s political elite. Obvious responses should include: strengthening the oversight of the awarding of government contracts, more transparency in budgeting, real campaign financing limits – particularly on those seeking government favors, and meaningful, well-resourced, independent ethics and contracting oversight and enforcement.

In this re-election year, we’ll soon see if the public clamor over corruption will impact Albany’s legislative thinking. If not, the voters will have an opportunity to express their opinions this coming November.

Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

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