Days after PolitiFact New York verified what many intuitively knew, we get what could turn out to be even more proof that New York is indeed home to the most corruption cases of any state in the nation.
The corruption charges stemming from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion initiative and other efforts to revive upstate’s economy merely add to a growing tally of state public officials and private-sector accomplices caught treating government money like their personal stash.
Anyone who thought, “Surely, this is it!” after the former Senate and Assembly leaders were convicted on various charges last year simply underestimated the climate for corruption that Albany has established. The convictions of Dean Skelos and Sheldon Silver – and former Senate leaders Malcolm Smith and Pedro Espada, former Comptroller Alan Hevesi and a host of others before them – were just a prelude for a case that, while not ensnaring any elected officials, nevertheless plops responsibility right at the door of the Governor’s Office. After all, it is his signature program now being dissected by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara.
So what is it about New York that leads us back to the courtroom over and over?
Much of it no doubt is a culture in which succeeding generations of politicians, lobbyists and businessmen see what was done before and try to replicate it while confident – justifiably or not – that they will be a little bit smarter than those who got caught before them.
But part of it is also the way the Cuomo administration does business, putting a priority on speed over openness, said Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group. That emphasis on getting projects like Solar City built quickly, at the expense of checks and balances, creates the opportunity for the type of deals that led to the federal charges filed Thursday. Among those ensnared were Buffalo developer Louis P. Ciminelli and two key aides; former top Cuomo aide Joseph Percoco; former Albany lobbyist Todd Howe, who took a plea deal earlier; and SUNY Polytechnic leader Alain Kaloyeros, a key figure in the Buffalo Billion initiative.
Horner said the indictments should serve as a “road map” for how to reform Albany, because they lay out how easily the accused allegedly bribed and defrauded their way to payoffs. Reading it also should provide the incentive, because the blatant nature of the accusations is infuriating.
In just one example, the complaint alleges that Howe worked both sides of the street, being paid by both LPCiminelli and SUNY affiliates involved in Buffalo Billion projects. Making good use of his dual positions, he allegedly said in an email that he had “vitals” about LPCiminelli and a Syracuse developer whose officials also were charged – a term prosecutors say was code for information that could be used to rig the bid processes in favor of those two companies.
Another email from an LPCiminelli official to Howe even included bullet points to be used to draft the request for proposals for the Buffalo projects, which LPCiminelli eventually won after – prosecutors say – Kaloyeros sent the company a “draft of the relevant sections” of the RFP to help make sure they got it right.
The entire complaint reads like “The Sopranos” without the guns – and with your money instead of TV money. It’s enough to make us long for the good old days when there was merely the appearance of impropriety.
Granted, the accused are innocent until proven guilty. But Howe’s guilty plea and Bharara’s track record offer reasons to conclude how this will play out.
The question is: Will this finally be enough to spur change, after the previous 30 corruption cases were not?
We’re already No. 1. Do we have to lap the field before New York voters finally get outraged enough?
“It should be either voter outrage or the U.S. Attorney’s Office,” Horner said of what it will take to clean up Albany. “Right now, it’s the U.S. Attorney’s Office.”
But with a new administration taking over in Washington in January, we can’t rely on Bharara even being around next year to do what voters should be doing for themselves. Yet ethics reform never rates as a voter priority here.
Maybe there is something in New York that lends itself to more corruption than other places. Maybe it’s us, and how much we’re willing to tolerate.