New York’s Corruption Pit
The state’s and city’s political malfeasance scandals are so interlocked with their watchdogs that the feds have to sort them out.
As usual, New York is flush with political corruption scandals, with a number of trials and investigations in progress or gearing up. Alain Kaloyeros, the nanotech Svengali and Andrew Cuomo associate who had been in charge of hundreds of millions of dollars of state funds, is accused of rigging bids for personal gain. Retrials are scheduled to begin in the cases of former state assembly speaker Sheldon Silver and former state senate president Dean Skelos; both men’s corruption convictions were overturned. Cuomo aide and close friend Joseph Percoco was convicted in March of influence peddling, and the trial of Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano for accepting bribes has revived allegations of corruption that have haunted Mayor Bill de Blasio, whom a key witness in the Mangano case has pleaded guilty to bribing.
Curiously, all these cases are taking place in federal court, though New York does not lack for state or local oversight of corruption. In fact, New York has some of the nation’s strongest anticorruption laws and multiple cross-jurisdictional agencies that can address political malfeasance of any sort. County district attorneys, responsible for prosecuting violations of state and local law, are the primary legal players in public corruption cases. New York State’s attorney general is technically barred from prosecuting bribes and violations of election law, though Governor Cuomo radically expanded the power of that office when he investigated Eliot Spitzer’s use of state police to spy on his political enemies. The state’s current attorney general, Eric Schneiderman, established the Public Integrity Bureau to handle “complex investigations into government corruption, fraud and abuse of authority.” The Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE), a state-level authority, has jurisdiction over public employees and elected officials. In New York City, the Campaign Finance Board (CFB) investigates compliance with Gotham’s expansive laws in this area; the city council has wide (and untapped) subpoena power; and the Department of Investigation has broad oversight over every aspect of municipal government, including the power to investigate people or entities that receive benefits from, or do business with, the city.
All these overlapping state and local entities should be elbowing one another out of the way to bring malefactors to judgment, but none appears committed to the task. Dozens of elected officials have gone to prison since 2000, virtually all convicted by the U.S. Department of Justice. Why must New Yorkers rely on the federal government to sweep clean their Augean stables?
Much of the problem—unsurprisingly—lies in New York’s interlinked networks of donors, party bosses, unions, and consultants, who choose candidates, fund them, and essentially control them once they’re in office. Four of the city’s five district attorneys and the state attorney general all come from the same pool of progressive Democratic party politics and are all essentially allies of the mayor. JCOPE is dominated by the governor, and he and the legislature appoint toothless watchdogs to oversee their own ethics violations. The mayor, meanwhile, controls the CFB, which ignores his million-dollar excesses while scrutinizing every penny spent by his opponents. The city’s Commissioner of Investigations served as de Blasio’s campaign treasurer.
Power adores a vacuum. While New York’s assorted enforcement personnel circle around one another, it’s no surprise that unelected federal prosecutors, who make their names by hunting the biggest heads, have rushed in.
City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).