New York governor David Paterson, beset by charges of witness tampering in the case of a close aide accused of assaulting an ex-girlfriend, has spoken of legalizing ultimate fighting as a revenue raiser to help close the state’s $8 billion plus budget gap. But New Yorkers looking for brawling entertainment need look no further than the Democratic caucus of the state senate where Paterson had been a member for 20 years.
During a debate on whether to expel Queens state senator Hiram Monserrate, who was convicted of a misdemeanor for trying to slash his girlfriend’s throat with a piece of broken glass, State Senator Kevin Parker rose to the occasion. Parker, under indictment for attacking a news photographer, has a personal stake in defending Monserrate. Sent to anger-management counseling for punching a female traffic agent, the solidly built 5′11″ Parker could also be expelled if he’s convicted in the photographer assault case.
Infuriated by comments of the 5′2″ Diane Savino, a state senator from Staten Island, that Monserrate could be immediately expelled with the co-operation of the Republicans, Parker, egged on by his political pals, charged at her screaming that she was a “f—ing bitch” because “the Republicans have no right to dictate what goes on in our house.” When Jeffrey Klein of the Bronx leaped to Savino’s defense, Parker turned on him—and in a version of B-movie dialogue screamed at Klein, “Do you want a piece of me?” “If that’s what it takes to stop this,” came Klein’s retort.
With the possibility that Paterson will be forced out of office, New York could have its third governor in four years. Paterson’s predecessor was Eliot “I’m a f—ing steamroller” Spitzer, a spoiled rich kid anointed by the New Republic as a liberal messiah (before the magazine discovered Barack Obama). Spitzer had a brief rocky stretch as governor after he was caught using the state police to try to gather incriminating evidence against political rival Joe Bruno. But it was his patronage of a brothel that brought down this self-proclaimed supporter of women’s rights.
Scandal is routine in New York State, where soaring rhetoric about government—remember Mario Cuomo’s “New York Idea”—has intersected with the unchecked growth of spending and the absence of competitive elections to produce a continuous crime scene. In recent years the state comptroller Alan Hevesi, a Democrat, and Joe Bruno, the Republican president of the state senate, have been convicted of shakedowns.
Bruno’s defense is that the dapper 80-year-old hadn’t behaved any differently than Shelly Silver, the speaker of the assembly. And Bruno was sort of right. Silver, a trial lawyer, is, thanks to the Albany rules, allowed to engage in honest graft on behalf of his law partners at Weitz and Luxenberg. Albany is a series of tollbooths erected as vehicles for extraction by different members of the government, with some more “legal” than others.
While a dozen state legislators have been indicted or convicted of stealing from the public purse, three have already gone to prison. They include former Bronx state senator Efraín González, who left office after surrendering to the feds on charges that he pumped state funds through a nonprofit he controlled back into his own pocket, to pay for new homes for his wife and mistress as well as a renovation for his mother-in-law’s home and a vacation place in the Dominican Republic. In the Albany political world, nonprofits are synonymous with criminal enterprises.
Queens assemblyman Anthony Seminerio, who was elected on the Democratic, Republican, Independent, and Conservatives lines—third parties are a convenient source of corruption here since candidates are allowed to run under multiple ballot lines—has been convicted of taking half a million dollars in bribes from clients, largely hospitals and doctors, looking to cash in on New York’s Medicaid racket. There’s plenty to skim: The Empire State spends more on Medicaid than California and Texas combined.
A lawmaker captured the mindset of Seminerio and company when he said,
When you sit around and look at what you’ve accomplished and look at all the people you’ve helped get rich, you say, “What the hell. Maybe I’m not doing it right.” If you’re not motivated by good, you wonder why you’re helping other people and not yourself.
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.
If Paterson steps down, the man he appointed lieutenant governor, 76-year-old Richard Ravitch, a hero of the 1975 New York City fiscal crisis, who strangely is not a creature of the Albany cesspool, will take over. But not even Ravitch’s formidable skills will be enough to return law and order in the form of budgetary sanity to the Albany Gang. The state may be dying, but its political class, a few prison sentences notwithstanding, is thriving. Only pressure from the financial markets—à la Greece—could return gravity to this political “bizarro world.”
Fred Siegel is a resident of Brooklyn. Kevin Parker is his state senator.