Political Corruption in the New York State Legislature
Published on: Mar 4, 2016
Transcripts - Political Corruption in the New York State Legislature
POLITICAL CORRUPTION IN THE
NEW YORK STATE LEGISLATURE:
WILL IT EVER END?
BY SEYMOUR P. LACHMAN
Seymour P. Lachman
The Hon. Jerome and Helene Berg
Public Policy Papers on Government Reform
Published by the
Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform
at Wagner College
Staten Island, New York
Seymour P. Lachman, Dean Emeritus
Marc A. Rivlin, Interim Director
POLITICAL CORRUPTION IN THE
NEW YORK STATE LEGISLATURE:
WILL IT EVER END?
by Seymour P. Lachman
In the nineteenth century, the British historian Lord Acton wrote, “Power tends to
corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” What Acton appeared to be saying is not
that leaders are innately corrupt—although some may fit that category. What he was
saying is that power can produce corruption and that absolute power invariably brings
about major corruption. The key question is, how do we limit this power that produces
corruption while working within the political systems in the United States. Winston
Churchill, the British prime minister and one of the greatest figures of World War II, put it
another way when he said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all of
the other alternatives. He is, therefore saying that democracy is not perfect but compared
to other systems of government, is better, and we have to realize this. In ancient and early
medieval times, when kings, emperors, pharaohs, and others had absolute power, they also
invariably abused that power. They could do whatever they wanted—politically,
economically, socially, and culturally—and they did.
At the end of the medieval period and the early modern period, these absolute
powers were somewhat but not as yet totally weakened through the creation of
constitutional monarchies, which began with the election of parliaments, initially only by
landowners and without the participation of women. Eventually this grew into monarchies
with limited parliamentary government. However, this was still not the parliamentary
democracy that developed in the late nineteenth, twentieth, and early twenty first
The early immigrants to America usually came not only to make a better life for
themselves but also to be able to express their religious beliefs that were not accepted as
yet by many of the nations of the world. This is why many of the Puritans and other
religious dissidents who emigrated to these shores and to a new land with all of its
difficulties had the opportunity to become, in their minds, similar to the ancient Israelites
and serve, in their opinions, as a light unto the nations. Some, unfortunately, did not accept
this in their relationships with some of the other religious dissidents.
Things were never easy in developing new democratic institutions and changing the
attitudes of people to accept them. There was an interesting case that illuminated this. In
1785, one of the outstanding founding fathers of America, Benjamin Franklin, was set to
leave France to return to the United States after serving there since 1776, first as one of
three commissioned envoys and later as minister plenipotentiary (ambassador). As was the
custom for departing diplomats, Franklin was given a gift by France’s King Louis XVI, just a
few years before his death during the French Revolution. What was the gift? It was a gold
snuff box, which contained a portrait of the king surrounded by 408 diamonds. Franklin’s
fellow envoys Silas Deane and Arthur Lee had received similar gifts upon their retirements
years earlier. The gift occurred before the Constitution had been adopted when the Third
Continental Congress presided over a weak central government under the Articles of
Confederation. There were concerns about the practice of diplomatic gifts, so much that the
Articles of Confederation prohibited the practice as a temptation to corruption (Articles of
Confederation, Article VI, Clause I). Still, Congress considered whether Franklin should be
allowed to keep the gift. Was this snuff box given to Franklin as a reward for his having
influenced the new American government to support France in issues of foreign affairs or
was it given because it was standard practice to give gifts to departing envoys? Should the
conflict of interest, an appearance of corruption that arises from diplomatic gifts mean that
they should be banned outright as in the Articles of Confederation? Two years later, the
Constitutional Convention included in Article I a prohibition of any federal office holder
accepting a gift from a foreign government without the consent of Congress. Later, it was
discovered the snuff box amounted to more than half of Franklin’s personal estate. There
were also growing concerns in America about the growth of corruption in the late
eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Things worsened in the mid and late nineteenth
centuries. During the administrations of Andrew Jackson as military governor of Florida
and later president, corruption was rampant. Patronage grew as the means of filling
government positions and court orders were routinely defied. Corruption worsened later
in the nineteenth century. In New York State, William “Boss” Tweed controlled the
Democratic political machine of Manhattan known as Tammany Hall. He was eventually
sent to jail for multiple acts of public corruption. Between 1850 to 1870, he illegally
amassed $200 million, which would be worth approximately $7 billion today. He was one
of the richest people in the country. His power went so far that almost everyone who
received a job building the Brooklyn Bridge had to give a kickback to Tammany Hall, which
meant Boss Tweed.
In 1881, President James Garfield became the second American president to be
assassinated. He was assassinated by a disgruntled supporter who had expected an
appointment to high political office and money as a reward for his service to Garfield’s
1880 campaign for president. This led to a backlash against patronage, and the corrupt
spoils system very slowly began to change. But, even after the civil service laws were
passed by Congress, this was only the tip of the iceberg of growing corruption in
Things even became worse in the twentieth and early twenty first centuries to the
point that the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law
observed that the New York State Legislature is one of the most corrupt in the nation. In my
opinion, it is today certainly the most dysfunctional and among the most corrupt. I saw this
firsthand when I served five terms in the New York State Senate during the late 1990s and
early 2000s before I returned to academic life. This corruption expanded into many other
areas in the last decade. Harvard University’s Edmond Safra Center for Ethics in 2015
issued a study of corruption for all of the fifty states. The Safra Center received their results
by breaking it down in terms of executive and legislative corruption. The New York State
Legislature, they said, is one of the six most corrupt in the country. A report on corruption
in Illinois issued by the University of Illinois at Chicago described New York as the most
corrupt state, followed by California and Illinois.
How and why is New York so corrupt? There is a complete lack of transparency: no
one knows except three men and their staffs what takes place in the development of the
budget for the entire state. The power of these three men — the governor, the speaker of
the Assembly, and the majority leader of the state Senate — is absolute. Their power
includes whether any and all bills are permitted to go through the two-house Legislature. I
do not recall during my five terms in the state Senate any bill that passed both houses of
the Legislature without the support of the speaker of the Assembly and the majority leader
of the Senate, who most of the time happened to be of opposite parties. The legislative
leaders also are in charge of all moneys going to members beyond their salaries of $79,500.
They appoint committee chairs as well as the numerous party conference leadership
positions (such as whip), controlling the additional salary that comes with those positions.
They allocate office space and staff budgets, assign conference staff to assist in members’
offices, and determine what funds in the budget members may distribute to community
groups in their districts. They give them these perks and, in return, members of the
Legislature are required to listen to what their leaders tell them to do. Because the
members are so dependent upon the leaders for providing for their districts as well as
personal advancement, the relationship is inherently corrupt. The New York State budget
for Fiscal Year 2016 contained $2.9 billion—almost $3 billion—in “lump sum”
discretionary spending, much of it reallocations of member item funds from past years’
budgets, that was not itemized, all of which is controlled by the Assembly speaker, the
Senate majority leader, and the governor.
When I served in the state Legislature, we had considerable free time when the
three men in a room were coming up with a budget and deciding what bills would become
law. What did the members of the Legislature do? Most of them called their district offices
to work on local issues back home. This rarely took more than an hour each day. The
waiting could go on for many more hours. What would they do with the remaining time?
One state senator called people in his district for hours and hours to congratulate them for
milestones such as birthdays and anniversaries. That senator is now in jail for other
reasons mentioned later. Another senator, who was hoping to run someday for higher
office, spent his time calling potential donors to upcoming cultural programs that he hoped
would raise his public profile. He was successful with both the program and his goal of
achieving higher office.
Many would take long hours for lunch and see the sights in Albany. Others would
work for hours in their offices on matters other than the budget because they did not know
what was happening in the budget process. Still others, including me some times, read the
various newspapers and articles in journals and magazines, some of which did pertain to
governmental issues but not the development of the New York State budget.
Every time members of the Legislature are in Albany, they receive a stipend — a per
diem — for food and lodging ($172 in 2015), which most members take in full, regardless
of whether they had spent that amount. Some members supplemented their salaries by
tens of thousands of dollars in per diem payments. This is just one of many questionable or
corrupt practices in the New York State Legislature.
We have to ask ourselves now: Why do corrupt and illegal practices continue?
Because of the concentration of power in leaders of each house and the fact that, since
many individual members benefited from the system in place, members of the Legislature
did not have the power or the will to change it. Today, because of the indictments of the
Senate and Assembly leaders and a new focus on ethics and corruption, individual
members may have power and the will to change at least part of it. However, thus far, there
have been very few changes.
Even though the United State Congress has been criticized for corruption, it does not
compare to the New York State Legislature, in part because the power is not concentrated
as much in the leaders. For example, Republican Speaker of the US House of
Representatives John Boehner faces frequent opposition to major parts to his legislative
agenda within his own Republican conference. He sometimes does not receive a majority
vote of these colleagues to support important legislation he wants passed. Similarly, when
former Democratic House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, almost a decade ago, wanted to have as
her deputy leader a congressman she supported, the Democratic conference selected
someone else. She remained speaker — it was not a vote of no confidence leading to her
replacement, and she remains the Democratic leader to this day— but she was taught a
lesson that the conference, not the speaker, has the power to select the leadership and the
committee chairs. That would never, ever happened in the New York State Legislature. The
majority party in Congress elects committee chairmen. Committee assignments are based
on seniority and what the members of the committee want. This does not exist in the New
York State Legislature where the leadership of each house controls everything.
In the New York State Legislature, the Senate majority leader and the Assembly
speaker do as they want. They use conference and committee leadership assignments as
perks since they come with significant stipends. If you do not follow the vote of the
leadership, then you will not rise in the party and have influence in state legislation. The
leaders of different committees receive different amounts of additional salary. The chair of
the finance committee gets as much as the deputy majority leader in the Senate. Some
would say it is unethical behavior to use leadership positions, and the stipends attached, in
this manner. Others would say that it is illegal behavior. Some would just call it politics. The
line between ethical and illegal behavior is blurred, and legislators sometimes go over the
line dividing the two, and some don’t realize when unethical behavior blurs into illegal
Over a year ago, I received a call from Tom Kaplan who is a political reporter for The
New York Times. He asked me, “Do you still have that photo on the wall taken while you
were in the state Senate, the one with all 62 of you sitting there?” and I said, “Of course I
do.” And he said, “Can you go over to the photo and tell me what they are doing now.” I
went over to the picture, and looked at the people. I said that several are still in the
Legislature today. Others have left the state Legislature to resume their law practices full-
time. Others have become lobbyists for companies that might have business dealings with
the state. Some have been elected to local government positions. One has returned to
academic life. In a few minutes, I was surprised and shocked to discover that 15 percent of
the members of the Senate the year that the photo was taken have been indicted, face trial,
or are serving prison terms. Even former members of the Legislature don’t realize the
magnitude of the issue. What other business or profession has had 15 percent indicted and
found guilty in one decade. In the following decade it was much worse and the percentage
was over 20 percent of the state Senate.
When I was on the finance committee working to prepare a budget for New York
State — “working” means doing nothing for the majority of elected members. The majority
leader’s senior staff had much more power than I did. I will never forget the last day of one
session. All of a sudden, the members of the finance committee, Democrats and
Republicans, were called together. And, it was several months after the date the budget was
supposed to be voted on. We went in to the finance committee room, and the chair of the
finance committee said to us, “Okay guys, we have a budget. In a half hour we have to vote
on it.” And he was carrying a stack of papers as large as about 15 telephone directories,
which turned out to be the budget. And, he said, “Read the budget. You have the
opportunity to do that for one half hour before you vote. The other member of the Senate
and the Assembly do not have that opportunity at all. But, we all have to vote for it.” And I
said, “How can we possibly read a phone directory of over a thousand pages and vote on
it?” And he said, “Seymour, we are the lucky ones. The other members in the state Senate
won’t have a chance to even read it. It will plop on their desk when they come into the
Senate chambers for a vote.” And I said, “That’s crazy. How could you possibly do that?”
And he said, “One reason. You have to vote for this because it has the joint support of the
Senate majority leader, a Republican, and the Assembly speaker, a Democrat, and [then-]
Republican Governor George Pataki. And you know that whenever they agree on
something, it has to be voted on favorably and you have to vote yes.”
Those of us who called ourselves reformers were in a major dilemma. Many items in
the budget could be essential for our constituents and the people of the state of New York
as a whole — education issues, transportation issues, economic issues, social issues,
community issues. The problem was that individual budget items could not be voted on
independently after the leadership, the three men in the room, put this into what they felt
was the final form. Nothing could be removed and voted on independently because the
governor had issued a “message of necessity” for the agreed-upon budget bills. Each budget
bill was one total package, wrapped together with a ribbon, and you could only vote “yes”
or “no.” Anyone who dared vote “no” on this budget, approved by the governor, the
Assembly speaker, and the Senate majority leader, would become a pariah and persona non
grata in their Democratic or Republican conferences. If the legislators voted “yes,” they
would have the opportunity to move up in their party hierarchy and perhaps, in a few years
become a chair or a ranking minority member of an important committee.
Henry Kissinger once said, “Corrupt politicians make the other ten percent of us
look bad.” I don’t think that corrupt politicians make up ninety percent. I think that there
are some people who are corrupt who run for office in order to make more money and gain
more power. But, I also think that most people who run for office many times want to do
the right thing but are prevented from doing so because of the dysfunctional environment
that they are in. Some of these who are not corrupt are drawn into the web and become
part of the system and advance politically and legislatively. It’s so dysfunctional that, for
the last decade, five majority leaders of the New York State Senate as well as the twenty-
year-veteran Speaker of the Assembly have all been indicted including some that are now
in prison or will be sentenced shortly. How is this possible?
In 2008, David Paterson, the Democratic minority leader in the Senate, was selected
to run for lieutenant governor by Eliot Spitzer, the then-gubernatorial candidate. Paterson
was succeeded by Democratic state Senator Malcolm Smith, who in 2014 was tried and
found guilty of bribery and corruption for his actions in a scheme with Republican New
York City Councilman Daniel Halloran (who was also convicted) to secure for Smith the
2009 Republican nomination for mayor. Smith was succeeded by Senator Pedro Espada Jr.,
who for years was criticized for enriching himself by directing state funds to a health care
nonprofit that he controlled and employed members of his family. In 2010, Senator Espada
and his son, an assemblyman, were indicted in federal court for embezzlement and tax
fraud for stealing funds from the nonprofit’s health clinics. Convicted in 2012, Senator
Espada was sentenced to five years in prison.
Senator Carl Kruger, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, one of the most
powerful committees and the individual making birthday and anniversary telephone calls
to constituents, is now in prison serving a nine year sentence for illegally taking millions of
dollars from the state. Senator John Sampson, the Democratic conference leader in the state
Senate before the current one, who shared leadership with Senators Smith and Espada
when the Democrats controlled the state Senate in 2009 and 2010, was indicted in 2013 for
embezzlement, obstruction of justice, and making false statements to the Federal Bureau of
Investigation stemming from the alleged theft of $400,000 from the sale of foreclosed
homes and now faces a trial. It is unbelievable that these people and others together
represent close to 20 percent of the senators in the past 15 years. What other business,
union, or organization has 20 percent of its officials indicted over such a period?
In the Assembly, at least 18 members have been convicted of corruption or
otherwise left office in scandals related to their public offices in the past 15 years. Sheldon
Silver, who served as speaker from 1994 until forced to relinquish his position in January
2015, has been indicted for allegedly monetizing his power and position by illegally
earning attorney fees in return for conveying public benefits to a medical practice and a
real estate business.
The corruption extends to the Republican side of the aisle as well. Senator Joseph
Bruno, the predecessor to Senator Dean Skelos as majority leader, was convicted in 2009
on two federal counts of influence peddling related to $3.2 million in private consulting
fees earned from helping entities with business before the state. Bruno’s conviction was
overturned after a United States Supreme Court ruling narrowed the scope of the federal
honest services statutes under which the charges were brought to require proof of bribes
or kickbacks and not just a showing that the public official used his or her influence to earn
outside income,1 and Bruno was acquitted at a retrial. Bruno’s senior assistant majority
leader, Senator Guy Velella, went to jail for bribery in 2004. And, now, in 2015 Dean Skelos,
his son, and his deputy majority leader, Tom Libous, both face federal trials on corruption.
This is the first time in at least 50 years that a majority leader and deputy majority leader
were both indicted.
What pattern do we have here of corruption in a dysfunctional state Legislature?
Every Senate majority leader in a decade and the only speaker of the Assembly in over a
generation have been indicted and many of them have already been sent to prison.
The above sounds quite frustrating, and it is. What possibly could be done to change
this dysfunctional system that exists today? What laws have to be adopted? How can these
recommendations for reform be adopted by the state Legislature as it exists in New York.
Governor Andrew Cuomo’s continual efforts to bring about reform have been frustrated by
opposition of the leadership in the Legislature. Recent prosecutions of public corruption by
federal prosecutors, including one of the most powerful in the nation, the United States
Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara, have brought to the surface
many corrupt practices taking place in the New York Legislature.
1 In Skilling v. United States, 561 U.S. 358 (2010), the United States Supreme Court held that the 1988 “honest
services” provisions to the federal mail and wire fraud statute (18 U.S.C. § 1346) was to be narrowly
interpreted as only covering “fraudulent schemes to deprive another of honest services through bribes or
kickbacks supplied by a third party who ha[s] not been deceived” and not solely the existence of a conflict of
Perhaps as a result of the new indictments involving the speaker of the Assembly
and the Senate majority leader, there can be an opportunity for reform.
Some suggestions that can lead towards reforming the legislative system should
1) Prohibit outside employment for all state legislators. Outside employment by
legislators leads to conflicts of interest or the appearance of conflicts of interest. Members
of the Legislature should be working in the best interest of their constituents and the
people of the State of New York, not outside interests.
In return for making the job of New York State legislator a full-time position, salaries
should be increased to a level that will attract people from all backgrounds and not give
any advantage to those who are independently wealthy.
2) Extend the legislative term from two to four years and set term limits of
three four-year terms. The constant pressure to campaign every two years and raise money
for reelection undermines members’ ability to act in the best interests of the people.
Unlimited terms lead to entrenched leadership with excessive power and increases the
possibility of corruption at the top as exemplified by the recent spate of arrests of
3) Put an end to unaccountable per diem payments that have been greatly
abused by legislators. Set a cap for reimbursements for food and lodging while on official
business in Albany. Require all legislators to prove that they are working in the capital and
have them submit receipts for reimbursement rather than have the state automatically pay
the full per diem for any days that members claim to have been in the capital region.
4) Designated grants such as member items should be allocated fairly to
deserving organization. No organization should receive member items or equivalent
designated expenditures without it first being examined where the funding will go and how
the organization will use the funds to improve his or her district. Evaluations must be made
every year regarding the worthiness of these items. Where appropriate, organization
should be funded in the baseline budget and granted objectively by state agencies through
an application process based on the merits rather than at the discretion of members or the
three men in the room.
Designated expenditures should be allocated fairly to all members of the Legislature
on the basis of need within the district, not as a way to reward some members, especially
those in the majority party, and punish others.
5) Reform New York’s campaign finance system:
a) Eliminate the “LLC Loophole,” which treats limited liability companies
like individuals rather than partnerships or corporations for the purposes
of campaign contributions, allowing wealthy individuals to use multiple
LLCs to donate many times the amount of money allowed for one person.
b) Housekeeping accounts, separate non-campaign accounts used by
political parties to which unlimited political contributions can be made,
leading to inevitable and undue influence by the major contributors, must
c) Public campaign financing with matching funds for small individual
contributions, which the New York City Council has adopted, must be
improved and adopted by the state Legislature.
d) New York State has the highest individual contribution limits of any state
that limits campaign contributions. Contribution limits should be lowered
to levels closer to New York City and federal limits. Along with public
matching funds, this should reduce the influence of money on campaigns
e) Place additional restrictions on campaign contributions from those with
business before the state.
f) Further restrict the use of campaign funds for personal purposes and
spell out what is meant by “personal purposes” so that there is no
ambiguity or misunderstanding.
6) Limit the power of the leaders of each house. Individual members should
select committee chairs and leadership positions. Committees should be empowered to
hold hearings on pending legislation, allow bill markups and amendments, and decide
which bills are sent to the floor of each house of the Legislature for a vote, without
retribution at all by the leadership. In addition, all of the Senate and Assembly members,
regardless of party or seniority, should be given comparable staff allocations and Albany
office space as well as funding for district offices sufficient to serve all constituent
regardless of geographic size or local rent costs.
The problem is that these laws have to be adopted by the state Legislature, but the
leaders and the members of the Legislature benefit from the current system and so much
that it would be difficult for them to go along with these democratic reform changes that
would make the state Legislature more functional. We all must increase the pressure on
them to change their behavior within the light of total transparency.
The dimensions of a dysfunctional Legislature have grown over the last generation
to the present when things are so bad that more and more people are demanding change.
At the same time, many of them do not know how to bring about these important and
necessary changes so that New York State in all aspects government will become a beacon
of light and not darkness unto the nation. In order to achieve this, we must organize
together as one group to really bring about a functional state Legislature that we can look
at with pride and satisfaction. It will not be an easy accomplishment, but, working together,
it can be done.