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Albany’s Crime Spree

New York state government is a den of thieves.

Mar 22, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 26 • By FRED SIEGEL
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Albany, a political “enterprise zone,” is a paradise for lawmakers who have gone into business for themselves. In a state which between 2000 and 2008 experienced a domestic outmigration of 1.5 million people—the highest in the country—almost the only job growth has come from the rapid rise in the number of lobbyists. Between 2000 and 2007 the number of lobbyists doubled from 3,000 to 6,000, while money spent on lobbying grew even faster, jumping from $66 million to $171 million. That makes New York the lobbying capital of America with 24 lobbyists per legislator. Illinois, the land not of Lincoln, but of Blagojevich, is a distant second with 12. And of course since lobbyists need people to lunch with, Albany has the second largest legislative staff (after Pennsylvania) in the United States. Albany’s 212 legislators employ 2,751 staffers, that’s 650 more than California which has almost twice the population. 

David Grandeau, who was deposed as head of the state lobbying commission for an excess of honesty and integrity, summed up the situation. “Don’t they realize that you end up with fiscal crises because there is no integrity?” Grandeau for all his virtues is insufficiently cynical. New York’s pols fully understand the situation; they understand that while the state is in decline they’re doing pretty well.

Consider the group of characters who came together to rally support for David Paterson in his time of troubles. They were convened by Al Sharpton, of Tawana Brawley and 125th Street Massacre fame, who owes $1.5 million in back taxes to the federal government but rolls along thanks to kid-glove press coverage and half-a-million dollar third party contributions indirectly drawn on Mayor Bloomberg’s bank accounts. Sharpton was joined by Representative Charlie Rangel, a man with his own mountain of ethical failings. Rangel, who occupies four Manhattan rent-regulated apartments in the name of fighting poverty, while hiding the rents from his Dominican villa on his financial statement, has been forced to step down as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee after he was slapped on the wrist for accepting corporate money to attend a Caribbean junket. Rangel, who’s a key player in writing the tax code, explained of the junket money that it was his staff’s fault; he hadn’t intentionally violated the rules.

Less well known is Malcolm Smith, one of the Democratic leaders of the chaotic state senate, who’s been in the headlines for siphoning money donated to a nonprofit supposedly on behalf of Katrina hurricane victims. In 2008, Smith wowed a group of lobbyists, who had paid $75,000 apiece to hear him speak at a golf outing, by telling them, as the Democrats were on the verge of taking control of the state senate, that they should think of his fundraising event as being like an IPO. He told the group, according to a lobbyist who was there, that they “should get in early because then it doesn’t cost as much. The longer you wait to get in, he said, the more it will cost you, and if you don’t get in at all, then it will be painful.” Corruption is so routine in Albany, notes New York Post columnist Michael Goodwin, that it is hardly noticed. “A roll call in the legislature could be a lineup at the local precinct.”

More recently Smith was involved with congressman Gregory Meeks and former congressman Floyd Flake in winning a rigged bid to operate casinos at Aqueduct Race track, in return for endorsing David Paterson’s now defunct reelection campaign. One of Smith’s key partners was -Darryl Greene. In 1999, Greene was convicted of stealing $500,000 from New York City agencies. In New York, scandal leads not to reform but to more scandals.

David Paterson unintentionally summed it all up. Referring to the legislature’s unwillingness to slow the rate of spending in an economic downturn, Paterson complained that “Albany is a kind of political bizarro world, where there is no gravity, where light waves bend right around the capitol.” And in this bizarro world, it’s the most minor of infractions that might be the final straw forcing Paterson to step down. The same staffer whose girlfriend had wanted a restraining order (and who rose to power when another top aide resigned after blaming his failure to pay taxes on “depression”) had earlier harassed the Yankees for World Series tickets. No big deal, but then according to the usually supernumerary state Commission on Public Integrity, Paterson perjured himself in testifying about it, even backdating a check to cover up the unnecessary lie.

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