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Commentary & Opinion

Liz Benjamin: Another Corruption Scandal Rocks Albany

Liz Benjamin
YNN, Capital Tonight

In the wake of last week’s back-to-back corruption scandals that rocked New York politics, everyone’s looking for someone to blame.  

It stands to reason.

It was tough for even the most hard-bitten and veteran observer not to be shocked by the facts laid bare by US Attorney Preet Bharara – especially the news that a sitting assemblyman had been working with the feds to help catch his corrupt colleagues for almost the entire duration of his four years in office.

Campaign finance and election reform advocates pointed the finger of blame at a system riddled with loopholes and easily manipulated by candidates bent on bilking the taxpayers.

If only we could take the money out of politics by establishing a publicly funded system, these advocates say, this problem would be solved.

But New York City already has such a system. And it’s certainly not immune to corruption.

I mean, just what was Senator Malcolm Smith after when he tried to bribe his way onto the Republican ballot line in the mayor’s race in Democrat-dominated New York City?

The likelihood of the party hopping Queens Democrat best known for getting tossed out of the Senate majority leader job up in Albany winning that election on the GOP line was so low it was almost laughable.

Perhaps he had his eye on the free money available from the taxpayer funded matching funds available through New York City’s campaign finance system?

So far, Smith isn’t talking. But that possibility is worth contemplating as advocates push a public campaign finance system at the state level as cure-all for public corruption.

And what about the ability of self funding billionaires like Mayor Mike Bloomberg or his would-be successor, supermarket mogul John Catsimatidis, to use their personal funds to essentially buy ballot lines by contributing to county party campaign committees – a process that’s entirely legal as long as the contributions are reported to the Board of Elections?

You don’t hear the campaign finance reform advocates talking a lot about closing that particular loophole. Why? Maybe because this reform push is significantly supported by the labor unions, who give big to party committees – especially the housekeeping accounts, which have no contribution limits.

According to his morning’s headlines, Governor Andrew Cuomo and his advisors spent the weekend trying to figure out what his response would be to the latest flurry of scandals.

They came at a most inopportune time for the governor, who has been traveling the state in attempt to convince New Yorkers that three on time budgets in a row is ample proof that state government is working again.

Cuomo campaigned on an anti-Albany platform back in 2010, pledging to clean up the Capitol and end its reputation as home to the nation’s most dysfunctional state Legislature.

Reports have Cuomo considering a wide range of anti-corruption busting options, including a Moreland Act Commission to investigate the Legislature.

Ironically, his father wielded that tool back in the 1980s to investigate the state’s campaign finance system, which his commission deemed a quote embarrassment – a description that still applies today.

Cuomo could also move to give the state attorney general more power to investigate political corruption crimes. That’s something he pushed for back when he was New York’s top legal eagle, but has since dropped since he moved up in the world and was replaced by former Senator Eric Schneiderman.

The governor might also propose an end to fusion voting, the cross endorsement of candidates by minor parties. That’s something New York is one of just eight states to allow, and imbues otherwise obscure party leaders with significant power.

The list of reform options for Cuomo to considerable, which speaks volumes about the depth of the problem in Albany.

This much is certain: A swift and strong response from the second floor is on the horizon and will no doubt dominate the agenda – perhaps even to the expense of other policy items – for the remainder of the legislative session.

Liz Benjamin is host of Capital Tonight on YNN. You can follow Capital Tonight all day long at capitaltonight.com.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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