Fixing New York

by Bill O'Connell on November 6, 2010

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Welcome to Liberty’s Lifeline audio folks.  Today we’re going to talk about the current condition of New York State government, which is not very good, and begin walking through the process of how we can make it better.

In a 2004 study by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School entitled The New York State Legislative Process: An Evaluation and Blueprint for Reform, it outlines in some detail just how dysfunctional New York State’s legislature is compared with ninety-nine other legislative bodies at the state level and Congress.  New York State’s government has been famously described as “three men in a room,” with the three men being the Governor, the Speaker of the Assembly, and the Senate Majority Leader.  To grasp the extent of their power and how little the candidates that you just elected to office have it is not inconceivable that all the members of the Assembly and all the members of the Senate could go to Albany, the state capital, just once during their term, vote for the Speaker of the Assembly or the Senate Majority Leader, and then return home never to visit Albany until they are re-elected, which they surely will be.  The power is so concentrated in these three individuals that the others are mere bit players.

Through a series of posts here, I will try to describe the extent of the problem and some possible solutions. There have been some changes since this report was issued in 2004, but many issues still remain.  In a more recent report from the Brennan Center titled, “Structural Problems in Albany in Detail,” identifies five key problem areas.  They are:

  1. Corruption
  2. Inefficiency
  3. Lack of Transparency, Input or Deliberation
  4. Special Interests Have Disproportionate Sway
  5. Incumbency Protection.


I will address these issues in a series of podcasts.  First I will address the problems, quoting from the Brennan Center report and commenting on the information there.  Like any good stew, it needs to simmer for a while, so I will cover the five problems and leave the potential solutions to follow.  That should get your blood sufficiently boiling, to continue the cooking metaphor, to effect action.  This is a unique time to bring about change.  The electorate is energized.  There are a number of organizations who are aligned in this fight. A significant number of legislators have signed petitions in favor of reform as well as a number who didn’t (and we know who you are).  The New York State Senate appears to be balanced at a 31-31 tie, meaning that the rules could take on a greater meaning, if that body is to function at all.  So let’s dive in.

Brennan Center for Justice

Problem Number 1: Corruption


A recent report by the Citizen’s Union has identified an increasing trend of legislators leaving office due to ethical or criminal issues.  The legislature has done almost nothing to police itself or ensure that legislators are reprimanded for actions that are reprehensible but less than criminal.  As the Citizen’s Union report notes, ethics violations are most often revealed and pursued by law enforcement, not the bodies specifically designed to oversee legislative ethics.  Legislative committees devoted to ethics oversight rarely meet, and the Legislative Ethics Commission, the ostensibly independent body charged with ethics oversight, is appointed by the legislative leaders.

In Context

  • In the 10-year period between 1998 and 2007, 704 New York public officials were convicted in federal public corruption cases.
  • Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno was recently convicted of taking 11 payments worth $200,000 from two companies for “consulting work” he never performed.  He was also found guilty of receiving $80,000 from a businessman looking to do business with the state for a horse that prosecutors said was worthless.  Federal prosecutors had [sic] that he collected over $3 million in return for using his influence to benefit labor unions and private firms.  Three days after Bruno resigned, he took a job with a technology consulting company with state contracts.  Three weeks later, he registered as a lobbyist, taking advantage of a loophole in the ethics law that prevents former lawmakers from immediately lobbying the legislative branch, but not the executive.
  • The New York Times recently reported that some lawmakers and hundreds of public employees collect state pensions on top of their government salaries.  Former officials convicted of ethics violations – including former Comptroller Alan Hevesi, who pled guilty to fraud involving the pension fund – are legally allowed to collect state pensions, even from prison.
  • In 2008 alone, four members of the Assembly have been on [sic] prosecuted for corruption.  One was convicted and sentenced to two to six years for receiving bribes; another was sentenced to 10 years after pleading guilty to racketeering and perjury; a third plead [sic] guilty of fraud; and the last pled guilty to receiving $500,000 for his official duties.
  • Between 2000 and 2009 legislators were more likely to resign while under ethics investigation, or after pleading guilty to or being convicted of a crime, than they were to lose in a general election.
  • Loose campaign finance laws also invite the appearance of corruption when high contributions from lobbyists and state contractors appear to be linked to the award of lucrative state contracts.  For example, one of the major contributors in New York, is a Japanese company called Kawasaki Rail Car, Inc.  At first blush it may seem odd that this company is so interested in New York State politics.  But a possible reason emerges from the fact that it “has enjoyed big MTA [Metropolitan Transit Authority] contracts for the past two decades and especially under the Pataki administration.  In 2003 the company, with a partner, won a $2.3 billion contract with the MTA to build new subway cars.”




  • Lack of Political Will to Implement Real Reforms.  The Public Employees Ethics Reform Act (PEERA) of 2007 is the only comprehensive modification to lobbying and ethics laws in New York State in the last 20 years.  The legislation was drafted and adopted without public discussion or debate and left in place New York’s ineffective system of ethics oversight.  While PEERA included a strict ban on honoraria, increased penalties, and reduced the allowable value of gifts, critical reforms were absent.
  • Lack of Meaningful Financial Disclosure Laws Results in an Atmosphere Ripe for Corruption. At the indictment of Assemblyman Anthony Seminerio of Queens last year, United States Attorney Michael J. Garcia noted, “The absence of genuine transparency in Albany provides cover for officials seeking to enrich themselves at the public expense.”  New York’s lax financial disclosure laws allow lawmakers to hide the true sources of their income in a way that makes it impossible for the public to determine if their “citizen legislators” are doing business with lobbyists, lobbyists’ clients or state contractors.
  • Bifurcated Ethics Oversight Enables Legislators to Police Themselves.  The Legislative Ethics Commission – a body under the control of the legislature itself – has sole jurisdiction over legislators and their employees.  Each of the four legislative leaders appoints a legislator and a non-legislative member, the Speaker of the Assembly and Senate Majority Leader jointly appoint the ninth member.  Melissa Ryan, the longtime Executive Director  of the State’s Legislative Ethics Commission admitted, “We’ve never issued a notice of probable cause. I don’t think we’ve ever assessed a penalty.”
  • Campaign finance laws riddled with loopholes enables large contributions form lobbyists and state contractors.  Unlike eight of her sister states, New York has no pay-to-play laws to prevent or curb contributions that come with the greatest conflicts of interest: those form lobbyists and state contractors.  Coupled with high contribution limits and the ability to give an unlimited amount to party housekeeping accounts, lack of pay-to-play rules invites the perception from the public that Albany is for sale.


I am not sure if what I just read was a report on how New York State government works or a movie script.  If this is the way our state government works, I can just see the conga line of politicians, lobbyists, contractors, union bosses passing through one door of the state capital and out the other with bags of cash.  For a ten year period there was a public official convicted, convicted, not just charged in a federal corruption case an average of every 5.2 days. For ten years!

We have politicians in the legislature one day, the retired and back as a lobbyist the next day.  We have corrupt politicians collecting pensions that you pay for, while in prison.  This to me is the kicker, that it is more likely that a member of the legislature will resign under corruption charges than be voted out of office.

It’s cronyism and corruption of the worst kind, but in Albany it is just business as usual.  So stay tuned folks, we’re just warming up.  We can make a change, but we need to show the same dedication and persistence that we just showed the rest of the country.  It’s time to clean house.

We’ll talk to you soon.

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  • Publius Maximus

    This is ultimately a direct result of two major problems not healthy nor foreseen in the formation of our government system at any level of state or federal government: 1) government controlling too much power and money. It is bad enough government is a ship of fools. It is worse at quite another level when it controls so much money. 2) career politicians. When a politician makes his/her home in Albany, Harrisburg, Sacramento, Springfield, Austin or Washington DC, they consequently lose touch with their constituencies. Spin is the only way to control the message home. Talking points create cover for reality, and too many of us are too busy making ends meet to uncover the truth. Instead of guarding the public trust, they use it for personal gain. The temptation is too great. The best padlock on the public wallet is limited government, with VERY limited resources. Government has over reached into every corner of life, bribing the public with its own money, and creating competing, dependent subjects, content with status quo corruption in exchange for pet subsidies, whether it’s a direct, wealth transfer social payment or a state contract.
    Take away its power, and watch better people line up for duty, citizen legislators, too busy to serve, but willing to do their part, eager to return to their homes, their businesses and their productive lives, after sacrificing precious time to serve their fellow citizens. And watch the greedy losers who have nothing better than politics to do with their lives find internet scams to keep them busy. Better for them and better for us.

    • Anonymous

      I could not have summed it up better. You are absolutely correct on all of your ponts. If you look at New York, however, compared to other legislatures around the country, it is particularly bad. Think of all the abuses you point out and the worst way to carry out those abuses are how they are done in New York. We have no where to go but up, if and when we break the stranglehold the powerful have in New York.

    • Bill

      When the Constitution was approved and the first Congress seated and until 1815, they were paid per diem $6. It seems the longer they are in session, the more trouble they create for us. The Texas state legislature only meets once every two years and they are required to finish their business in 140 days. Texas seems to be doing pretty well. Food for thought.

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