New York State of Corruption: An Opportunity for Reform Amidst a Year of Reckoning

What do Joseph Percoco, George Maziarz, Edward Mangano, Sheldon Silver, Alain Kaloyeros, and Dean Skelos all have in common? Each of these New York public officials will go to trial on corruption charges over the next six months. The slew of trials kicks off today with the trial of Joseph Percoco, a former advisor to Governor Cuomo who is accused of taking over $300,000 from companies in a pay-to-play scheme for influence in the Cuomo administration. Next up, on February 5, George Maziarz goes to trial for filing false campaign expenditure reports in an attempt to conceal almost $100,000 in payments to a former Senate staff member who had quit amid sexual harassment allegations. March 12 brings the trial of Ed Mangano, the former Nassau County Executive charged with bribery, wire fraud, and extortion for receiving almost $500,000, free vacations, furniture, jewelry, home renovations, and other gifts as bribes and kickbacks. Sheldon Silver will be re-tried on April 16, after his conviction for obtaining nearly $4 million in bribes was vacated last year following the Supreme Court’s decision in McDonnell v. United States. In May, the former President of the SUNY Polytechnic Institute Alain Kaloyeros will stand trial for the same bribery scheme that ensnared Mr. Percoco. And finally, on June 18, Dean Skelos will be re-tried after his conviction on bribery charges was, like Mr. Silver’s, overturned in light of the Supreme Court’s McDonnell decision.

These six trials—all involving high-profile public officials, bribery and extortion charges, high stakes, and large sums of money—will receive considerable amounts of attention from the media and public, and will certainly provide much fodder for blogs like this one. While every month from January to June will bring a trial with its own drama and complexities, we can step back at the outset and consider what these trials collectively mean for corruption and ethics reform in New York. The trials will undeniably shake the public’s trust in public officials. Will these trials fuel cynicism that makes New Yorkers less likely to participate in the political process—or might these trials instead spark optimism that creates the political momentum for ethics reform?

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To Gauge McDonnell’s Impact, Menendez—Not Skelos or Silver—Is the Case To Watch

In June 2016, the United States Supreme Court vacated the conviction of former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell. McDonnell had been convicted for accepting loans, gifts, vacations, and other valuable items from a businessman. In return, Governor McDonnell allegedly promised or performed a number of “official acts,” mostly in connection with trying to help the businessman get state government support for a nutritional supplement his company was developing. The Supreme Court vacated the conviction on the grounds that the trial court improperly instructed the jury on what conduct could count as an “official act” (the “quo” in a quid pro quo) under the federal bribery statute. In particular, the trial court had instructed the jury that “official acts” could include things like helping the businessman by arranging meetings with state government decision-makers, hosting an event to promote his business, or suggesting that subordinates speak to him. The Supreme Court ruled that this definition of “official act” was too broad, since it encompassed almost any act a government official takes.

How much did McDonnell change the landscape for federal corruption prosecutions in the United States? Some worry that it has already had a large and unfortunate impact, and point to recent developments in New York: Last July, a little over a year after the McDonnell decision, a federal appeals court relied on McDonnell as the basis for vacating the conviction of Sheldon Silver, the former New York State Assembly Speaker who was found guilty in 2015 for taking millions in payments in return for supporting legislation and directing grants that helped the payers. And just last month, another panel of that appellate court also relied on McDonnell in vacating the conviction of former New York State Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, who was convicted in 2015 (along with his son Adam) for bribery, extortion, and conspiracy. According to prosecutors, Skelos had promised votes and taken actions benefitting three companies in exchange for providing his son with consulting fees, a job, and direct payments.

Skelos’ and Silver’s convictions were seen as a victory for federal prosecutors, and a much-overdue effort to clean up the notoriously corrupt New York state government. Many commentators pointed to the recent appellate court rulings vacating those convictions as evidence of McDonnell’s broad and malign effects on efforts to clean up corruption (see, for example here , here, and here). But while the vacations of these convictions are a setback for anticorruption advocates, they do not actually reveal much about the reach of McDonnell, nor are they likely to materially change the fates of Skelos and Silver. The much more important case to watch—the one that will be a better indicator of McDonnell’s long-term impact— is the trial of New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez. 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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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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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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