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Latest convictions must pave the way for changes in Albany’s corrupt ways

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara has run up an impressive score against the bribe-takers, thieves and shakedown artists who infest New York State government.

In the six years he has led the federal prosecutor’s office in the Southern District of New York, Bharara has won convictions or secured guilty pleas from 11 current or former members of the State Legislature, most recently ridding the state of two of its most powerful – and corrupt – members: former Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos. He needs to keep up the pressure and, what is more, there is ample reason to think he will have to.

Speaking on a radio show in New York City this week, Bharara encouraged state leaders to craft ethics laws that attack the rot that pervades Albany. “I think there’s no doubt now … that there’s a deep problem with corruption in Albany,” he said.

Yet, he also said – to no one’s surprise – that he has been hearing “a little bit more whispered whining on the part of some legislators in the press, without attribution, than focus on how to solve the problem” Albany faces. Even with the felony convictions of the recently deposed leaders of the Legislature, some in state government remain willfully blind to the need for serious, far-reaching reforms. They like their pigpen just the way it is.

That’s where Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo needs to come in. Cuomo has talked a good game on ethics reform and, in fact, he has produced some changes. But not nearly enough to accomplish what New Yorkers need. If ever there was a time to go all in, surely this is it. Cuomo’s State of the State address is scheduled for Jan. 13 – less than a month away. If it isn’t dominated by the need to address Albany’s intolerable levels of corruption, then he will have missed his moment and New Yorkers will be the worse for it.

First and foremost, Cuomo needs to focus on money: that which is given by donors and that which is earned by lawmakers outside the Legislature. It was outside money that brought Silver to ruin. It creates conflicts, or at least the appearance of conflicts, that infect the legislative process.

Forget the notion of a citizen legislature; that doesn’t exist anymore. Government is a serious business that requires serious men and women to guide it. It’s no use pretending that the job of a state legislator in New York isn’t full-time work. It is.

New York needs to ban outside income from all elected officials. The lawyers in government won’t like it, but they can cope with it or go back to practicing law. Silver is a lawyer who illegally manipulated his outside affiliations to enrich himself. The only practical way to ban that income is to redefine lawmakers’ jobs as full time, and with a salary that reflects that commitment.

The state also needs to close the preposterous LLC loophole, a transparent maneuver that allows unlimited contributions by wealthy donors, many of whom are trying to buy influence in the Capitol.

The loophole is a devious mechanism that allows limited liability corporations to donate as much as they want to candidates, courtesy of a terrible 1996 ruling by the Board of Elections that LLCs are actually “individuals.” While businesses can donate only $5,000 in any year, individuals have a limit of $60,800. Worse, there is no limit on the number of LLCs an individual can create as a way to funnel bribes – sorry, donations – to political candidates.

That this loophole still exists, despite years of demands that it be closed, testifies to the money-grubbing corruption that permeates Albany and especially the State Legislature. If lawmakers were serious, this avenue of corruption would have been sealed off years ago.

It’s time to change it. Cuomo needs to lead this charge and be prepared to expose lawmakers to the anger of voters.

And Bharara needs to keep his indictment forms at the ready, just in case.