State-Level Responses to Trump’s Corrupt Mix of Business and Politics: Some Preliminary Proposals

In my last post, I suggested that legal responses to concerns about corruption in the Trump Administration—in particular, concerns about Trump’s use of the presidency to enrich his family—might be more successful at the state level than at the federal level, and might be more viable if they do not attempt to target Trump directly, but rather deploy state law tools to limit the Trump family’s ability to leverage Trump’s position for commercial gain. My last post noted two proposals for lines of legal attack that could be initiated by state attorneys general (or possibly by private parties) under existing bodies of state law: state unfair competition laws (some of which are framed very broadly) and state corporate laws (which give states considerable power to regulate corporations, and possibly limited liability companies (LLCs), operating pursuant to state charters).

These proposals are attractive because they do not require any changes in existing laws. At the same time, and for that same reason, the laws in question are not necessarily well-tailored to the specific and unprecedented corruption/conflict-of-interest problems at issue in the Trump Administration. For that reason, it might be worth exploring potential changes to state law that would give state enforcement agencies, and possibly private litigants, more effective tools to rein in some of the most egregious sorts of potential conflicts, and thereby to enforce a more rigid separation between the Trump Administration and the Trump family’s business interests. Even though Republicans control the large majority of state governments, there are several states where Democrats and sympathetic Republicans might well have enough clout to pass such legislation—including, perhaps most importantly, California, New York, and Delaware. (Many other states have popular ballot initiative processes that might enable the passage of legislation even over the objections of Republican-controlled state legislatures.)

What might such state-level legislative reforms look like? This is a topic I hope to explore in a series of future posts, but here let me throw out a few relatively simple preliminary ideas: Continue reading

A Step in the Wrong Direction: How Term Limits Could Increase Corruption

The recent federal corruption convictions of Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos, longtime New York legislative leaders, have rightly led many to offer suggestions for preventing political corruption by elected officials. In two posts on this blog, Sarah suggested a mechanism for creating additional parties to make elections more competitive, and, in an earlier post, she proposed limiting New York legislators’ opportunity to take on additional employment. Others have suggested increasing legislator pay, amending campaign finance laws to close the “LLC loophole,” and increasing enforcement, including with independent ethics officers. This list is far from exhaustive.

One other “fix” that comes up again and again: term limits for legislators. Soon after the corruption scandal involving Silver and Skelos hit the news, a New York Post opinion piece called for term limits. And since Silver and Skelos were convicted, the calls have continued for term limits as part of a package of reforms (see, for example, here, here, and here). Although no one asserts that term limits are the silver bullet for ending corruption, many claim that term limits can play a constructive role as part of a comprehensive anticorruption package. But I am not convinced that term limits actually reduce the likelihood of corruption. Not only are term limits unlikely to be much help, but—as others have also argued (see here and here)—term limits might even increase corruption. Here’s why:

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The Corruption Is Too Damn High: Reforming Albany by Creating Additional Parties

New York state politics appears to be rife with systematic corruption, a truth underscored by the fact that two of New York’s most powerful politicians—Former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former State Senate Majority Leader Dean G. Skelos–will soon be headed to trial for corruption. What can be done about this? Federal government involvement may do some good, as the federal prosecutions of Silver and Skelos demonstrate; U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara is conducting many other investigations that have sent a chill of fear through Albany’s corrupt actors. Yet the threat of prosecution alone might not be enough, which as led many people, including contributors to this blog, to suggest a range of other reforms designed to reduce the motive or opportunity for New York state politicians to exploit their power for private gain. Such proposals include reducing or eliminating the ability of legislators to receive outside income, pinpointing the problem that Albany is far removed from the cultural and business heart of New York, and introducing term limits for state legislators.

Yet there is another reform possibility that has not been discussed much and might be more practical than it initially seems: activists devoted to fighting corruption could create an additional political party in effectively one-party districts. There are many political activists in New York who care deeply about good governance. For example, State Senator Liz Krueger started a “No Bad Apples” PAC to “recruit, train and support progressive, reform-minded candidates for the New York State Senate.” Enthusiasm and resources that now go to efforts like that within one of the two major parties could instead be channeled to the creation of “No Bad Apples”-type parties in one-party districts. It would make sense for progressive activists to create spin-off parties to contest safe Democratic seats and conservative activists to create spin-off parties to contest safe Republican ones.

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Get Out Of Jail Free: The Corruption of Police Benevolence Cards

Get out of jail free cards are only supposed to exist in Monopoly. But they also exist in New York, in literal card form – at least for minor traffic infractions. These are the Police Benevolence Association (PBA) Cards. The New York Police Department claims that the cards carry no special privileges and should not influence an officer’s decision whether or not to issue a traffic ticket. The police unions, however, tell a different story. Al O’Leary, a spokesman for the PBA, said that the union expects officers to refrain from writing tickets for those with PBA cards as long as they are not a danger to others. (Of course, this in turn raises the question of why the police are writing traffic tickets for anyone who is not a danger to others.)

Perhaps the most frequent recipients of the cards are family members of police officers. O’Leary justified that by saying officers deserve a perk for their families because “[t]he risks our officers take every day make them different from other people.” Special privileges for family members would be corrupt enough. But union leaders admit that they also hand out cards as “tokens of appreciation” to politicians, judges, lawyers, and reporters. Indeed, the New York Police Benevolence Association’s includes an article headlined: “Call it a PR tool or a get-out-of-jail-free card: Each year, local PBAs hand out stacks to the well-connected.” In Nassau County, special cards are given to large donors to the police foundations. While the cards are particular notorious in New York, they exist in many police departments around the country.

This is corruption, plain and simple. And this corruption is shockingly blatant. Yet to the extent that the cards have generated significant controversy, it has been about the fact that the cards are now easy to buy on eBay, rather than the fact that they exist in the first place. One city councilman called for an investigation because selling the cards was “an insult to the people who do work for the NYPD.” Another, who admitted to holding a card himself, said: “Selling the courtesy to the highest bidder is wrong and probably should be illegal.”

These critics miss the point. The issue is not whether people other than the select favored of police officers gets out of tickets. Councilman Dan Garodnick got it right when he said: “Our traffic laws should not be enforced with winks and nods. I don’t know which is worse, the existence of a get-out-of-jail-free card or the fact that the cards are being hawked on the internet.” Continue reading

Shoddy Craftsmanship: How Not to Design an Independent Prosecutor

There is a reason that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has graced the pages of the Global Anticorruption Blog so many times in recent months (see here, here, here, and here): life just isn’t easy for a candidate who campaigns on promises to clean up politics only to drown in allegations once in office. Today I offer another installment in our (entirely unofficial) series on the trials and tribulations of New York’s Governor: “Designed to Fail: Andrew Cuomo’s Interactive Guide to Building an Independent Anticorruption Prosecutor. (Parts Sold Separately).”

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When Transparency Isn’t the Answer: Beneficial Ownership in High-End Real Estate

Earlier this month Transparency International UK published a report entitled “Corruption on Your Doorstep: How Corrupt Capital Is Used to Buy Property in the UK.” The Britain-specific recommendations are part of TI’s broader “Unmask the Corrupt” campaign, a call by TI, and echoed by others, to establish public registries of beneficial ownership. A similar call to unveil the individuals behind the shell corporations used to buy luxury condos in Manhattan garnered a lot of attention stateside during last month’s New York Times “Towers of Secrecy” series on the city’s high-end property market (see here, here, here, here, here, and here). The anticorruption rationale for mandating disclosure of real property beneficial ownership seems straightforward: As both the TI-UK report and the NYT series argue, buying real property in New York and London is an appealing way to launder stolen funds, because high-end real estate purchases allow a corrupt actor to inject millions of dollars into the legitimate market without having to deal with pesky anti-money laundering regulations, completing the purchases through shell companies that disguise the true beneficial owner. Requiring public disclosure of the beneficial owners of real property would in theory have two related benefits: First, requiring purchasers to reveal beneficial ownership information up front would dissuade some from using real property as a means of laundering money, and second, if law enforcement authorities have ready access to this information, it will make it easier to instigate and conduct investigations, as well as to seize assets later on.

Indeed, transparency in real property beneficial ownership seems like the kind of thing all anticorruption advocates should support, which is why it may seem a little counterintuitive when I say TI and others are taking the wrong tack. Pushing for central public registries of beneficial ownership of real property will not likely achieve the two objectives, and may have serious drawbacks. Here’s why: Continue reading

Preventing the Next Sheldon Silver

Sheldon Silver, speaker of the New York State Assembly, was arrested last week on federal corruption charges, sending shock waves through New York’s political circles. He is accused of accepting millions of dollars in disguised bribes for more than a decade. Silver allegedly asked developers with business before the state to spend money on a law firm that, in turn, paid Silver for legal work he never did. He was able to disguise the source of the income for so long because New York, like the vast majority of other states, considers its legislature to be “part time,” freeing up legislators to maintain legitimate outside jobs, as well as their government work.

Such outside payments are ripe for unscrupulous dealings (or, at very least, the appearance of impropriety), and have long been decried by anticorruption forces. Outside payments were a primary focus of Governor Cuomo’s anticorruption Moreland Commission, which the Governor then disbanded under pressure from legislators. Governor Cuomo recently proposed a new commission to look at ways to increase disclosure of outside income and to cap the amount of outside income legislators may receive. While Cuomo’s new proposals would be a good start, they do not go far enough. The time has come to ban outside legal work for state legislators and to compensate them fairly for the full time job the people elected them to do.

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