Ethics, Shmethics: The Culture of NY Politics

In Albany, even the watchdogs have ethics issues

By Gabe Pressman
|  Monday, Feb 1, 2010  |  Updated 7:49 PM EDT
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Ethics, Shmethics: The Culture of NY Politics

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Gov. David Paterson speaks after being sworn in as (L to R behind) Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, Attorney General Andrew Cuomo and Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno listen.

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It’s an epidemic. The lack of ethics is spreading like a bad disease from Albany to New York to Washington.

Wherever you look, it seems, some legislator or candidate or public official is suspected of breaking ethical rules or actually breaking them. It’s a depressing spectacle. No wonder the average citizen is fed up.

There’s a flagrant violation of propriety in the news that four members of the Public Integrity Commission have contributed $5,000 -- to the campaigns of Governor Paterson and the man who may run against him in this year’s Democratic Primary, Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, and other potential candidates for state office.

Mayor Bloomberg, it turns out, has made a questionable contribution to the state Independence Party.

And Congressman Gregory Meeks and State Senator Malcolm Smith have set up, the New York Post says, a non-profit organization that functions more like a slush fund than a charity.

So what are all these guys up to? Ethics are the rules we set up to guide our office holders in what’s right and wrong. And we have, in the first place, the Public Integrity Commission, whose members are supposed to be the watchdogs over New York’s elected leaders, contributing to political campaigns.

If that isn’t illegal, it should be. How can the people meant to enforce proper behavior give money to the very people they’re supposed to police? It can only, it seems, happen in a place like New York. Blair Horner of Common Cause says: "It’s a clear conflict of interest."

His associate, Susan Lerner, says: "These people are supposed to be impartial. But they are ethically tone deaf. It’s amazing."

One commission member, Richard Emery, insists that the commission members are chosen for their knowledge of the political system, "not because they’re celibate priests who are divorced from anything that goes on in the world."

Another commission member, Andrew Celli, was also critical of the critics. He asked: "Do I have to stop voting now?"

Certainly, we don’t need celibate priests to monitor these people. Nor is it necessary for the commission members to stop voting. But, if they’re going to rule on whether campaigns have committed unethical acts, they shouldn’t be contributing to these campaigns. It’s as simple as that.

As for the Bloomberg matter, two Post reporters, Fred Dicker and David Seifman, found that the Mayor had donated $1.2 million to the Independence Party just before Election Day. Bloomberg sent two checks for $600,000 each to the party just before Election Day. The party then gave $750,000 to what the newspaper calls "a shell company" associated with Bloomberg operatives. One former Bloomberg aide says he believes the money was used as "street money" -- to encourage voters to go to the polls.

As for the charge that Congressman Meeks and State Senator Smith founded a charity that appears to have been used to pay for meals, entertainment, consulting fees and IRS penalties, among other things, we were unscuccessful in trying to reach Meeks for comment.

So, adding it all up, we seem to have a Public Integrity Commission that has integrity issues. And we have two legislators who founded a charitable organization but seem to believe that charity begins at home. And the question of where and how that 1.2 million that Bloomberg donated to the Independence Party was spent requires further investigation.

As my grandmother might have said: "Ethics, shmethics, so long as you’re healthy!"
 

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