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State's scandals magnify crisis in government

When David A. Paterson took the oath of office two years ago today as the state's 55th governor, the cheers, enthusiasm and good will pervading the Assembly Chamber suggested a new era.

Maybe the kind of scandal that dethroned his predecessor would prove a thing of the past. Maybe business as usual would change, and maybe the new governor would collaborate with his former Legislature colleagues to tackle the state's pressing problems.

But just minutes after the ceremony, Paterson burst the bubble when he told reporters he had cheated on his wife and used illegal drugs.

On second thought, maybe the state's successive scandals would continue.

In fact, the list of the state's wayward politicians has grown dramatically in recent years. In recent weeks alone, Paterson clung to office amid two accusations of impropriety; Rep. Charles B. Rangel of Manhattan stepped down as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee just days after admonishment for accepting corporate-financed travel; and Rep. Eric J.J. Massa of Corning resigned after bizarre charges of sexual harassment of a male staffer.

Add the January conviction of former State Senate Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno on charges stemming from conflict of interest, the guilty verdict against former State Sen. Hiram Monserrate of Queens for dragging his girlfriend through an apartment building lobby, the investigation of State Senate Majority Leader Pedro Espada on campaign finance charges, the 2007 conviction of former Comptroller Alan G. Hevesi for allowing state employees to perform personal errands for his wife -- plus several other legislative misdeeds -- and the picture becomes crystal clear.

It leads some Albany veterans to observe that they never have seen the Capitol more consumed by scandal and misdeeds than the business of government.

"There has never been a time in my career that has ever been more dysfunctional," said State Sen. Dale M. Volker, R-Depew, who was first elected to the Legislature in 1972.

Assemblyman William L. Parment, D-Harmony, who has served in Albany since 1983, notes that most of the recent problems have stemmed from his own Democrats, who he said will be held accountable.

But Parment, who is noted for his independent ways, describes the radically altered public perception as a result of ethical problems as "disconcerting."

"Most of us got into public service because we wanted to make a difference in people's lives," he said. "It does cast a pall over our activities and makes us all look bad."

The problem is as old as government itself, said Abigail Levin, assistant professor of philosophy at Niagara University. The early Greek philosophers questioned whether democracy ever could succeed, given the realities and frailties of human nature, she said.

"Socrates argued that finding a just ruler is incredibly rare," Levin said. "Most people, given an opportunity to commit an injustice, will."

That's why Plato said only the wise should rule even if that spawns elitism, she added, because "nobody worthy of ruling would even want to do it."

Some of those ancient theories seem to be playing throughout government in the state, especially in Albany, the capital city. With an investigation still under way into allegations of improper interference in the case of a top aide accused of domestic violence, Paterson still faces the possibility of being forced to resign.

If that happens, the state faces the specter of its third governor in the term won in 2006 by Eliot L. Spitzer -- who resigned following a prostitution scandal.

While insiders like Volker and Parment recognize the problems, so do New Yorkers viewing from afar.

A new Siena College poll finds 54 percent of those surveyed said they were "embarrassed" to call themselves New Yorkers because of the events in Albany, while 70 percent say state government never has been more dysfunctional.

Steven Greenberg, Siena Research Institute spokesman, said 70 percent of those surveyed in the latest poll say the state is headed in the wrong direction -- the highest level in the history of the Siena poll.

"It really shows people have had it with Albany," Greenberg said. "They want someone to make real change for the better."

Greenberg said that despite the threat of a $9 billion state deficit, obtaining the votes to cut health care and education or close state parks will be difficult in a Legislature dominated by New York City liberals.

As a result, he sees the concept of dysfunction dominating discussion for some time to come.

"So this is going to continue to play out, and it won't reflect on legislators as much as it will on the governor," he said. "Ask Mario Cuomo; ask George Pataki."

Parment said the way that campaigns are conducted these days -- far differently from 1968, when he entered politics to work on Hubert H. Humphrey's presidential campaign -- adds to his discouragement.

Maybe that explains some of his independence: He has voted "no" on every state budget since 1986.

"I just don't agree with the spending plan," he said.

But he acknowledges there is more to his "no" votes. Sometimes he simply likes to express his displeasure with what the process has become.

"My biggest concern is that we have not been able to change the culture of New York State," he added, "and how we conduct the public's business."

e-mail: rmccarthy@buffnews.com

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