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New York State has a long history of political corruption

Taking a last bite into his cigarette, reporter Jimmy Desmond leaned toward then Assembly Speaker Tony Travia of Brooklyn and growled, “When you got bought last year, did you stay bought? Or is this a new arena?”

Without blinking, the Democratic leader announced, “it’s a noo ye-ah, a noo bill and a noo arena.”

In 1963, Desmond was Albany correspondent for the New York Daily News.

At issue was whether a bill making Marine Midland Bank of Buffalo the state’s only statewide banking system could be passed all over again. The prior year’s monopoly bill had been voided by a Manhattan judge, reportedly on orders from the notorious Tammany boss Carmine DeSapio.

Now the rumor was that the Legislature’s Democrats were again sleeping with their transoms open.

Desmond ambled over to the Capitol’s Senate chamber, trailed by less intrepid reporters, where he asked Senate Democratic Leader Joseph Zaretzki of Manhattan the same questions. Zaretzki cocked his shiny head back and declared, “I am unstuck!”

Weeks later, Senate Majority Leader Walter J. Mahoney, R-Buffalo, proudly announced to frustrated Democrats that Marine Midland’s monopoly bill would be passed “without [any] Democratic votes,” meaning without gratuities. Mahoney had signed on, briefly, with the bank’s law firm.

This was New York politics of the 1960s, as it was when Theodore Roosevelt, then New York City’s commissioner of police, fought police corruption 70 years earlier; when Gov. Franklin Roosevelt tore into former Gov. Al Smith’s crooked cronyism in 1930; and when a federal prosecutor indicted GOP legislators from Erie and Nassau counties for trying to milk the new Medicaid program in 1969.

Proving again that the state’s corruption is bipartisan – that is, nonpartisan and universal – President Richard Nixon in 1969 quickly fired the federal prosecutor, Robert Morganthau, a Democrat, because he was pursuing as a next step some nationally powerful GOP officials. Nixon had become a New Yorker between his episodes of White House service.

Citizens exhaled when Nelson Rockefeller, a Dartmouth College graduate, became governor in 1959. They believed the Republican’s legendary wealth and Ivy League education would immunize his administration from corruption.

But, no. The architect of Rockefeller’s election was a Republican operator named Judson Morhouse. Rockefeller made him a commissioner of the Thruway Authority. According to the New York Times, Morhouse extracted $100,000 for getting a liquor license for the Manhattan Playboy Club, plus $18,000 in public relations fees.

Morhouse served less than a week in jail before Rockefeller commuted his sentence.

Rockefeller blandly presided over more outrages, including a $250,000 bribe offered in 1964 to the Legislature’s leaders to provide licenses to various professionals.

These scandals seem to erupt like the cicada beetle that emerges every dozen years, to gloriously sing, breed, bury its eggs and die.

So today, we have another wave of prosecutions for wrongdoing.

Thanks to federal prosecutor Preet Bharara, the Legislature’s two former top leaders are facing jail time on corruption convictions. Bharara now has brought charges against the widest range of political icons – private developers, a former state Democratic chairman from Buffalo and former high state government officials, some of whom are close to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat.

Their travails are reported elsewhere in The News.

The question here is, will these problems continue? The answer is, yes. But corruption is not in the water, or in the blood of New Yorkers. It is locked deep in our laws: the lack of term limits, the lack of open primaries and restrictions against independents running for office, to name just a handful.

New Yorkers can either pass these reforms, or they won’t.


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