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Corruption Still Dominates Discussion in Albany

Stock photo of then NY State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver
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Anti-corruption is the dominant topic at the New York State legislature for the second week in a row, following bribery charges against two state lawmakers, including a former Senate leader. As Karen DeWitt reports, a new poll finds 81 percent of voters expect more Senators and Assemblymembers will be arrested.

The Siena College poll finds more than half of New Yorkers are “distrustful" and “cynical” about state government  and that over three-quarters fully expect more arrests of lawmakers on corruption charges, following high-profile bribery scandals that involved a Senator and an Assemblymember. A third lawmaker has admitted to wearing a wire after being charged with perjury.  

“Four out of every five voters think more legislators are going to be arrested the near future," says Siena’s Steve Greenberg, who says 35 percent think their own state Assemblyman could be arrested soon, while 30 percent believe their state Senator will shortly be charged with corruption.

Government reform groups say the poll shows one more reason why change is needed. Karen Scharff, with Citizen Action, is working on an effort to implement public campaign financing in New York.  

“Unfortunately, the poll shows once again that the vast majority of New Yorkers do not trust their government right now,” Scharff said. “And are worried that those with money control what happens.”

The poll did not ask about public financing of campaigns.

Scharff’s group is part of a larger effort called Fair Elections. The coalition has received close to a million dollars in donations. Scharff says they are discussing spending the money on ads or direct mailings targeted at state Senators who have spoken out against public campaign financing. The Republican leader of the state Senate has said public financing is not a good use of the taxpayers' money.

“Clearly, our stumbling block is the Senate,” Scharff said.

The Republicans co-lead the Senate with a group of breakaway Democrats known as the Independent Democratic Conference. The IDC supports public campaign financing. But Scharff says her group has not ruled out targeting the leader of the IDC, Senator Jeff Klein, in the ads as well.

Senator Klein and the rest of the breakaway Democrats announced that they will hold hearings on their anti-corruption package of bills that includes public campaign financing.

Governor Cuomo and Assembly Democrats support public campaign financing.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has instituted a zero tolerance policy against any future wrong doing of any kind from the members of his Assembly Democratic Conference. The Speaker maintains, though, that most state lawmakers are honest and “hardworking, dedicated public servants.”

“Serving our fellow citizens, I think, is a noble profession,” Silver said. “It obviously saddens me when there are individuals who would violate the public trust.”

Now the Speaker just has to convince the majority of New Yorkers of his views.

Complicating that effort -- former Senate Leader Malcolm Smith is due to be arraigned on the bribery charges against him on Tuesday.