Demand Better from Albany

Albany is a brick shithouse of institutionalized corruption. The people we sent to nominally represent us in Albany are incapable of reform, unwilling to be bold and aggressive, and nothing more than a preening flock of charity cases in Brooks Brothers suits and fat per diems.

It doesn’t matter what I write or what you say – Albany isn’t going to change because it has no reason to try.

213 nobodies get paid big bucks (by WNY standards, anyway) to do nothing. Everything is directed and produced by the governor, the Senate President, and the Assembly Speaker. Unless you’re represented by Sheldon Silver or Dean Skelos, your Assemblyperson and Senator go to Albany generally to moisten seats and rubber stamp stuff.

If they’re good girls and boys, they might be given some money to send home for road projects or other public works, and they get to stand there at the ribbon-cutting and look important.

It’s all a charade.

The upstate gun huggers will quickly tell you that Andrew KKKuomo is a Nazi Mussolini Duce.  That’s foolish. Albany’s a dictatorship, it’s true, but it’s a dictatorship of the bureaucracy. The Albany nomenklatura is typically resistant to change and anything that might shake up the status quo; after all, change means someone’s likely to lose a job, and we can’t have that.

It’s been like this for decades – it was 10 years ago the Brennan Center outlined a set of reforms that would be necessary for New York State government to resemble a contemplative legislative body, yet we’re still talking about it today. Everything from unfunded mandates to three-men-in-a-room to weak campaign finance to vague financial disclosure to a lack of transparency and deliberation have been talked about, and proposed solutions largely ignored. State authorities operate like it’s the 1950s, and do so with poor oversight and budgets that are off the regular state books.

Even when people think that there might be some scant hope of even modest reform – like that undertaken first by Governor Cuomo’s Moreland Commission on Public Corruption, now being handled and investigated by the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara, we get commissions that are abruptly shut down in favor of an on-time budget deal.

An on-time budget is more important than widespread corruption?

Shelly Silver and Dean Skelos are so afraid or opposed to investigating corruption that they make “end the Moreland Commission” a budget dealbreaker? Cuomo claimed he got accountability reforms which gave him enough cover to end the Moreland, but it’s all window dressing.

That’s before we delve into Cuomo’s own alleged meddling in the commission’s work.

How do we know Albany’s and Cuomo’s “we’re policing ourselves!” is all nonsense?

Thanks to Ass’t US Attorney Preet Bharara and the New York Times, we’re finding out more about what’s really going on.

Actually, before we get to Greg Ball and George Maziarz, let’s flash back a few years to a former member of the WNY Albany delegation who was arguably the worst in recent history – Antoine Thompson. This guy, who tried to explain why we even need a State Senate to begin with:

RIGHT. Antoine Thompson, whose staffers destroyed documents en masse when Mark Grisanti beat him in 2010. Antoine Thompson, who used campaign cash to take a vacation very serious and totally above-board trade junket to Jamaica.

Antoine wasn’t the only one.

Republican Senator Greg Ball took trips to Cancun and Acapulco, paid for with campaign dollars. It appears that Speaker Sheldon Silver is under increasing scrutiny for not disclosing all of his outside income, as required by law. Specifically, the New York Times points out three outstanding issues:

■ Powerful politicians — including the governor himself — continue to exploit a loophole in state law that allows corporations to funnel huge donations to them in smaller gifts that disguise the true sources of the money.

■ Lax personal financial disclosure laws, critics say, give corrupt legislators a way to mask political payoffs under the guise of part-time jobs. A 2011 reform presented as requiring disclosure of some clients was so narrowly drawn as to be meaningless, and another enacted this year allowed enough wiggle room that lawmakers could well continue to avoid scrutiny.

■ The line between political donations and outright bribery remains murky. Some politicians used their campaign treasuries as piggy banks for personal expenses, the commission’s investigators found, and bank records showed that lawmakers had failed to report some donations and expenditures altogether. A new, beefed-up Board of Elections enforcement unit has yet to show its strength.

The LLC loophole is what lets Carl Paladino give what amounts to unlimited campaign donations in any given cycle. While corporations can only give $5,000 in any given cycle, LLCs are treated instead as people. So, for the cost of an LLC filing fee, a donor can now repeatedly max out at $60,800 per cycle to any candidate for statewide office under each separate LLC. It also helps keep the true source of the money somewhat opaque.

So when Mr. Cuomo’s campaign wanted to nail down what became a $1 million multiyear commitment — and suggested “breaking it down into biannual installments” — the company complied by dividing each payment into permissible amounts and contributing those through some of the many opaquely named limited-liability companies it controlled, like Tribeca North End LLC.

Brazen. But it gets even worse.

Documents the [Moreland] investigators obtained provided unusual insight into what watchdog groups had long asserted: Corporations were strategically dividing up huge contributions to maximize their giving — and their influence. The use of limited-liability companies concealed the magnitude of their gifts from public view.

In one instance in 2012, the Real Estate Board of New York solicited donations for Lewis A. Fidler, a Brooklyn Democrat who at the time was running for a State Senate seat (whose previous occupant had pleaded guilty to accepting bribes).

James Whelan, a senior vice president for the board, a major lobbying force, emailed a Durst executive, Jordan Barowitz: “If you could find one of your more obscure LLCs, that would be grand.”

The Moreland Commission saw closing the LLC loophole as an easy fix, but since its disbanding, the loophole – which isn’t so much a “loophole” as it is a specific part of the law as it stands today – remains in place.

When it came time to examine the ways in which legislators were spending campaign cash for dubious, non-campaign-related purposes, retiring Senator George Maziarz (R-Newfane) “stood out”.

Investigators scrutinizing his campaign spending from 2007 through 2013 found more than $28,000 at stores like Pier 1 and Michaels; $7,500 at Shutterfly, the photo-printing site; and $7,850 for reading material, including a stop at a Borders store at Kennedy Airport.

The Moreland Commission fired off subpoenas to see what books and photos Mr. Maziarz’s campaign had bought.

Investigators also learned that Mr. Maziarz’s campaign had failed to disclose $147,000 in contributions and $325,000 in spending.

His campaign had written more than 300 checks to cash, totaling $137,000; about one-fifth of the checks were never reported to the Board of Elections.

A lawyer for Mr. Maziarz, Joseph M. LaTona, declined to comment. Mr. Maziarz, whose spending is now the subject of a federal investigation, did not seek re-election this year.

And guys like Maziarz have the stones to claim that Democrats are spendthrift? In addition to his Mexican vacations, Greg Ball,

… also traveled repeatedly to Austin, Tex., where he paid $4,000 in bar and restaurant bills — along with a $160 charge at Brooks Brothers. Those trips were, in a way, less surprising: Mr. Ball, who did not seek re-election this year, is fond of Texas, and recently announced that he would move there after leaving office.

Among the unusual outlets for spending from his campaign accounts was Tough Mudder, the organizer of extreme obstacle-course races. (Mr. Ball posted Facebook photos showing him crawling through the mud in a Tough Mudder race in 2012, and said at the time that he was trying to raise money for charity.)

Tough Mudder?!

Anyhow, you’d figure that the State Board of Elections would be on top of – and investigating – complaints of campaign finance irregularities brought to its attention, right? You’d be wrong.

The Moreland Commission saved even harsher criticism for the sleepy Board of Elections. In a preliminary report released in December 2013, the commission wrote that the board had “largely abdicated its duty to enforce our election and campaign finance laws.”

In fact, the board sometimes seemed to be avoiding investigations altogether.

Its policy dictated that anonymous complaints never be investigated, regardless of the information they contained.

Forget DAs doing it, either.

Lastly, the issue of legislators’ outside pay is coming under intense scrutiny, and if you want to know why the Moreland was shut down, look no further than Sheldon Silver and an abrupt change in the way he discloses his non-state income. Not just Silver’s firm, but the Moreland subpoenaed several law firms in hopes of verifying that these legislators were actually showing up to work, or whether their continued employment might be, e.g., an effort to skirt campaign disclosure laws.

Suspicious that some lawyer-legislators were holding no-show jobs, Moreland Commission investigators subpoenaed their law firms for building access-card data and sign-in sheets, invoices, expense reports and records detailing their clients.

Lawmakers became infuriated over the scrutiny, calling it a witch hunt into the legislative branch. Law firms went to court to block the subpoenas, as did the Senate and Assembly.

Mr. Silver’s law firm, Weitz & Luxenberg, argued that it was irrelevant “what time Sheldon Silver enters and exits” its office building each day.

The litigation was unresolved when the Moreland Commission shut down.

Yet Mr. Cuomo marveled at how much the subpoenas sent to outside law firms — including Mr. Skelos’s employer, Ruskin Moscou Faltischek — had discomfited lawmakers. “I’m surprised these guys weren’t fired,” Mr. Cuomo told members of good-government groups last spring. The United States attorney in Manhattan, Preet Bharara, whose office took control of the Moreland Commission’s files around that time, revived some of its investigations, including several involving lawmakers’ outside income.

Mr. Silver quickly became a focus of prosecutors’ interest.

Two people with knowledge of the matter said prosecutors have issued federal grand jury subpoenas to some of the same law firms that resisted the commission’s subpoenas, including Weitz & Luxenberg and Ruskin Moscou Faltischek. (A spokesman for the former firm declined to comment; the latter did not respond to messages.)

If you’re, say, a plaintiff’s law firm paying a legislator hundreds of thousands of dollars for what might be a no-show job, and that legislator also happens to be a huge and powerful obstacle to any attempts at tort reform, how is that not just outright bribery?

It’s time New Yorkers started demanding meaningful legislative and governmental reform, resulting in a true deliberative democracy. We do this by rejecting the notion that Albany pols are re-elected without any opposition. We do this by demanding results that go beyond a few dollars here and there for public works projects.  We do this by limiting the perverse influence that money has on state politics, and by demanding true and full transparency of where the money comes from, and where the money goes.

I won’t hold my breath.

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