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Big fish caught, but Albany’s cesspool remains

If only it began and ended with him.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office landed a big catch last week, even by Albany standards. It charged Shelly Silver with pocketing $4 million in bribes and kickbacks over the past 15 years. The Assembly Speaker is the state’s most consistently muscular political power. Governors come and go.

Silver, the longest-standing of Albany’s notorious “three men in a room” ruse of a government, has ridden herd on the legislative body for 20 years.

Silver’s arrest is a byproduct of the Moreland Commission, created in 2013 – and then killed last year – by Andrew Cuomo. The investigative body was touted by Cuomo as an independent assault on Albany’s culture of corruption. It turned out to be – to the disappointment, but not surprise, of many – little more than a Cuomo-controlled bargaining chip that extracted modest ethics reforms from legislators.

Cuomo dismantled his creation before it took a chunk out of Albany’s corrupt culture – or strayed into the governor’s domain. But he couldn’t stop U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara from picking up the investigative pieces. The charges against Silver are the Moreland Commission fruit that Cuomo didn’t allow to ripen. If convicted, Silver, 70, deserves to spend his golden years modeling an orange jumpsuit.

The sad part is that a major player goes down, but the larger story will likely stay the same. In a sane system, Silver’s takedown would spark massive ethics reform and signal the detoxification of Albany’s cesspool of corruption, scandal and public-interest abuses. The Fall of the House of Shelly kicks open the door for culture change – and the governor, who talks a good reform game, should lead the charge.

If only.

I hope I am pleasantly surprised, but I don’t see it happening. Politicians give reform lots of lip service, but time and again pucker up to the posteriors of special interests. Silver’s name – albeit a big one – merely pads the lengthy roll call of Albany players undone in recent years by scandal or corruption – from a governor (Eliot Spitzer) to a comptroller (Alan Hevesi) to dozens of legislators. There have been lots of political casualties, little political change.

Taking down Albany pols is like arresting drug dealers. Others just step in to take their place. Until the twisted rules of the game change – and only the players, sadly, can change them – the results will stay the same. Myopic oversight, loose ethics, laughable campaign finance laws and stray pots of money available for politicians’ abuse create a climate in which corruption and conflict of interest thrive like hothouse weeds.

“The rules are so lax it allows elected officials to think that graft and corruption are simply the way things work,” Lauren George of Common Cause-NY, a good-government group, told me. “When one of the top three politicians in the state is charged, you’d hope it would prompt a call for ethics reforms.”

There have been plenty of cries for change, usually in the wake of scandals, but little action. The charges against Silver include steering real estate developers – whose backs Silver protected with industry-favorable laws – to a law firm that paid him $700,000 in kickbacks. He somehow neglected to report the income on financial disclosure forms.

It’s hardly the only way politicians “get paid” for sabotaging the public interest. A gaping campaign-finance loophole allows companies to donate hundreds of thousands of dollars to candidates and political committees, easily sidestepping the $5,000 limit.

Among those raking it in is Cuomo, who pocketed $9 million in loophole-laden contributions over his first term, according to the New York Times – while publicly criticizing the practice.

That’s the problem: There is little incentive for politicians to close loopholes or tighten laws that stuff the campaign accounts that ensure political self-preservation.

“It’s not that Cuomo is corrupt,” said Common Cause’s George. “But it’s not in his [political] interest to dramatically change the rules … Yet he came to Albany promising to battle corruption and abuse.”

The problem isn’t figuring out what should be done, but doing it. A legion of state legislators work part-time as lawyers, but don’t have to reveal their clients – a fertilizer for conflicts of interest. Without public campaign financing, big-money donors bend and shape laws to their favor. Unaccountable pots of taxpayer money available to lawmakers are invitations to abuse. They range from tens of thousands of dollars in “member items” available to any legislator, to the de facto slush fund from which Silver allegedly funneled $500,000 in research funds to a doctor who steered clients to the law firm where he worked.

Prompted by vague rules, legislators have spent campaign dollars on everything from Acapulco vacations to Pier I binges.

Make no mistake, slapping the bracelets on Silver – if the criminal complaint stands – is a good day for good government. More than anyone, the Assembly Speaker defended a rancid culture whose abuses purportedly made him rich. His near-certain toppling removes a prime pollutant from Albany’s cesspool, shuffles the state’s political-power deck, may (hope springs eternal) prompt Cuomo to champion real reforms and could at least temporarily scare some legislators straight.

Although a big fish already is snagged, charges against other Albany politicians are likely to follow. Among those in prosecutors’ crosshairs is ex-State Sen. George Maziarz, the longtime Niagara County power who retired last year after the U.S. attorney began investigating his use of campaign cash. Asked last week if charges against other Albany pols are coming, Bharara replied: “Stay tuned.”

If Silver’s presumed demise is just the beginning of the political body count, it gives Cuomo the cover he needs for real reform – not just another Moreland Commission tease. I hope he takes another crack at it – and this time, a full swing.