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Editorial: Time to toughen state election laws

It’s possible – logical, even – to be disappointed in how the trial of former State Sen. George D. Maziarz ended – years of investigation producing only a single misdemeanor conviction.

But, upon closer consideration, what New Yorkers should be frustrated with are the weaknesses in state election laws. They can also be thankful that Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman, at least, is making an issue of these violations and that Niagara County politics may be conducted more forthrightly, at least for now.

New York state citizens have become inured to political corruption, from the former Speaker of the Assembly Sheldon Silver to the former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos to the rank and file. The broken system is allowed to continue creaking along to the detriment of constituents. From absent ethics reform to weak state election laws, the opportunities abound for unscrupulous elected officials to game the system.

Maziarz offers the most recent example. Following four years of investigations into his political campaign account and facing five felony counts of elections law violations and possibly years in prison – thud. He pleaded guilty only to a Class A misdemeanor, for filing a false instrument, and paid a $1,000 fine, plus $200 in surcharges.

With that, the former political leader avoided the harsher punishments that felony convictions could have produced, including prison time and larger fines. Perhaps that was justified in this case. But the laws remain weak.

The shock was palpable when Maziarz suddenly announced that he would not run for re-election in 2014. He was a longtime fixture in Niagara County politics – someone who had the power to punish and reward.

The former state senator admitted to wrongdoing in a case centered on former staffer Glenn S. Aronow, who was accused in 2009 of sexually harassing another Senate employee. The state paid $90,000 to settle the case.

Schneiderman thought more was amiss. He had charged that Maziarz was behind a “slush fund to avoid public scrutiny” of campaign payments to Aronow.

The judge in the case, Albany County’s Peter A. Lynch, had already dismissed charges Schneiderman brought last year against Robert G. Ortt of North Tonawanda, Maziarz’s Republican successor in the Senate. The attorney general took on a tough case when others didn’t.

What should occur is real reform of state election law to place more thorough and specific limits on how accumulated campaign funds can be spent, as James A. Gardner, an expert in election law at the University at Buffalo School of Law, observed. Schneiderman’s acceptance of a trivial plea deal suggests that the law is insufficiently authoritative about the extent of those limits. But the larger difficulty: New York State suffers from a lack of official accountability.

The problem, as the professor succinctly puts it, “is that officials would even for a moment consider the possibility of using campaign or party funds in unethical and undemocratic ways.” It comes down to an effort to destroy party competition, with elected officials and party officials rarely suffering any consequences for misbehavior.

Ultimate reforms can help restore effective competition. Parties in power would be at risk of being voted out. We share Gardner’s doubts on whether this will happen since, as he said, collusive partisan gerrymanders and bipartisan agreements on lax election laws (or in some cases, on excessively restrictive ones) have essentially ruled out this possibility in many sectors of government around the state.

The problem, it is important to note, occurs in federal law as well. The overturning of the felony convictions of Silver and Skelos, despite clear evidence of self-dealing by each man, make that painfully clear.

How many more elected officials in New York are flouting weak laws that fail to properly hold them accountable? They are surely out there. Schneiderman should continue enforcing state election laws but plainly, the laws need to be tightened.

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