Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Why not celebrate the downfall of Albany "politicians"?

Here in New York State, we have been witness in recent weeks to a disturbing parade of elected officials being handcuffed and hustled down to the courthouse steps for a perp walk. But while prosecution of sleaze should be welcome, there is a very disturbing aspect to the narrative of heroic law enforcement shooting at fish in a barrel.

The latest is the indictment of state senator John Sampson for some funny business that surprises no one familiar with the doings of our Albany legislators. He was apparently caught on tape figuring out how to funnel cash that he was supposed to be safeguarding (from foreclosures, no less) into his failed bid to become Brooklyn district attorney. (The irony is not lost on us—this guy came within four points of becoming the chief law enforcement officer of the city’s second largest borough.)

But how exactly was Sampson caught in these conversations? Well for one thing, his senate colleague, Shirley Huntley, was wearing a wire to entrap him, that to get herself a better deal with the feds in her own previously undisclosed criminal case. The prospect of a sitting legislator turning confidential informant and setting up her colleagues should give us pause.

This wasn’t even the first infiltration of the legislative branch practiced by local prosecutors. Another lawmaker, Bronx assemblyman Nelson Castro, turns out to have been merrily taping his Albany colleagues for years, also to bail himself out of some legal troubles. His recordings snared assembly colleague Eric Stevenson. One can only imagine what the Albany washrooms are like these days with solons ripping open each other’s shirts to see who is piping the news back to the precinct house.

There is certainly a heavy air of corruption hanging over our state legislature, and chronic complaints about it have been a feature of our landscape since the days of Teddy Roosevelt. The part-time legislators have too little to do because power is perversely concentrated in the tyrants of the two chambers, Assembly speaker Silver and the Senate president of the day. Lawmakers don’t even spend much time holding hearings or writing up bills, so there are far too ample opportunities to horse-trade and influence-peddle.

That said, having federal prosecutors planting wires on sitting legislators to get them to turn in their colleagues is a disturbing breach of the wall that should separate our co-equal branches of government. While prosecution of crimes is an appropriate executive function, the potential for abuse in these cases is worrisome. Corruption is certainly common, but it is also inevitable because the legislative function is supposed to include defense of constituent interests. When prosecutors eager for high-profile cases are allowed or encouraged to go fishing there, it threatens to undermine the already flimsy influence of the sovereign people over our state (and State).

No one will rush to the defense of state pols, whose reputation has been in the gutter since forever, so that makes them easy targets. But authoritarian states and tinpot dictators of all sorts love to trash ‘politicians’ as innately corrupt and self-serving to thereby justify their own ‘non-political’ monopoly on the levers of power. We need look no further than the Chinese or Russian kleptocracies to see how easily anti-corruption drives can be used by factions in their internal power struggles, especially when the entire system is built on fudging the rules. When everyone is forced to play the game, it’s easy to accuse an enemy of stealing because it’s pretty much always true.

That’s bad enough, but the ongoing prosecutions involving city comptroller John Liu’s campaign for mayor are even more upsetting. We’ve heard endlessly about his backers’ illicit bundling of contributions in support of the first viable Asian candidate in the city’s history, and the rules, such as they are, should be enforced. (Bloomberg, of course, never had to worry about them because he has a bank account with $20 billion in it.) But we hear much less about how relentlessly undercover agents pestered the Liu team with offers to do the illegal deals, the pounced when the operatives went along. A cynic might even conclude that there were powerful forces at work eager to cut Liu down to size.

It’s doubly annoying when one thinks of all the blatant criminality afoot in this city just a few blocks south in the financial district where federal and state prosecutors have followed the Obama Administration lead and taken a hands-off approach. Much easier and more career-building to set one’s sights on discredited Albany midgets and free-lance petty hustlers, bag a few indictments and trumpet oneself as a defender of the long-suffering cynical citizen who hates ‘politics’.

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