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Arrests of elected officials show Albany remains in need of oversight

Legislative office is not supposed to be a position one aspires to in order to pad one’s own pockets, or to satisfy whatever unquenched thirst for power and position that tricks the mind into thinking it is above the law.

But that is what seems to happen repeatedly in Albany and among state officials.

The latest legislator arrested is Assemblyman Eric A. Stevenson, a Democrat who represents some of the poorest neighborhoods in the South Bronx. He is accused by federal prosecutors of accepting bribes and conspiring to defraud the state through a scheme that involved helping developers open an adult day care center. One other lawmaker is also implicated in wrongdoing, as has been reported, but he is referred to only as Assemblyman-1 because he entered into a non-prosecution agreement for assisting the authorities in the investigation. And another unnamed confidential witness was a candidate who ran for a seat in the Assembly but lost.

What makes the Stevenson case even more troubling is that the charges came a mere two days after charges against top lawmaker and former State Senate majority leader, Malcolm A. Smith.

Smith, a Democratic senator from Queens, was accused of a bribery scheme to rally political support for him to run as a Republican for New York City mayor this year. This might have been considered one of the all-time long shots of long shots, but to Smith the risk was worth the reward.

The senator and five others were arrested in connection with the case or on offshoot allegations of corruption. It has been noted in this and other media the remarkable line of cases brought against state officials – including former Comptroller Alan Hevesi and former State Senate leaders Joseph Bruno and Pedro Espada.

The New York Public Interest Research Group showed 29 top state officials, most of them lawmakers, have been arrested, convicted, censured or had their reputations and careers sullied by scandal for everything from stealing money to sexual indiscretions.

In the minds of some of these state officials, they are above the law and when it comes to pure greed, there is no end. Indeed, the “show-me-the-money” culture is alive and well in Albany, as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District Preet Bharara said. An account of secretly recorded audio in which Smith allegedly showed little regard for cost in a shot at the mayoral race is astounding.

But it may be New York City Councilman Dan Halloran’s explanation that put it best: “That’s politics. It’s all about how much … That’s our politicians in New York. They’re all like that, all like that. And they get like that because of the drive that the money does for everything else.” The Republican was quoted sharing these words of wisdom in an undercover FBI tape recording.

And the urge is apparently relentless.

FBI agents said they caught Smith on tape as recently as two weeks ago in his Albany Senate office. The result were the arrests of GOP leaders in the Bronx and Queens, a New York City Republican councilman and the Democratic mayor and deputy mayor in the Rockland County community of Spring Valley.

Smith was the first and only African-American member of the Independent Democratic Conference, the breakaway group of five Democrats formed to keep Republicans in partial control of the Senate. Now, he has been stripped of his leadership and committee posts, something that occurred only seven hours after his arrest. Sen. Jeff Klein, a Bronx Democrat and leader of the IDC, said Smith’s actions “breached the trust” of the group, adding that Smith should consider stepping down from office. He should do more than consider it.

In possibly the biggest irony, Stevenson, according to the complaint against him, in a conversation with a confidential witness commented on the recent arrests of other high-profile politicians and warned: “Be careful of those things, man, the recorders and all those things.”

That, or just be honest.