A Slow-Motion Car Crash

Watching the New York State government in Albany is like watching a car crash into a wall in slow motion. You know this will end badly. And you know it did not have to be this way — if the car had only turned a different direction earlier.

In 2004 the Brennan Center called Albany the most dysfunctional legislature in the nation. One of the reasons Albany earned this ignoble title was the power in the New York legislature had pooled around the feet of two individuals: (1) the Speaker of the Assembly and (2) the Senate Majority Leader. These two men had (and have) a near stranglehold on the legislative process.

Add in the Governor of New York to these two and there are the “Three Men in Room” who control New York State government. Nothing can get done unless all three agree, which makes Albany a graveyard for good ideas. But years after good government groups warned that the state’s government was horribly broken, and needed to be fixed before things got really out of hand, the federal indictments are finally rolling in.

The latest criminal complaint was for the New York Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos. This comes right on the heels of the Speaker of the New York Assembly Sheldon Silver’s indictment on corruption charges.

If the phrase “the New York Senate Majority Leader has been indicted” reminds you of the movie “Groundhog Day,” it should. Dean Skelos is the fifth man in a row to hold that position to be indicted. As of May 11, 2015, Skelos refused to resign from his leadership post in the Senate and his caucus is resisting efforts by Democratic Senators to force him from his perch. The governor was noncommittal telling the New York Times: “It’s not my place to tell them who their leader should be.”

The New York Legislature must have been a strange place to work in the past few years as lawmakers who had their own legal woes wore FBI recording devices to catch their colleagues in corrupt acts. The Wall Street Journal reported legislators became reluctant to talk around the capitol for fear that a fellow lawmaker was wearing a wire for Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara.

And yet at the very same time, there was a near vice grip by incumbents on their seats in Albany. As two of my former Brennan Center colleagues noted, for years, it was more likely for a member of the New York legislature to die in office than to lose a general election. This is why advocates of changing Albany’s corrupt culture have focused on campaign finance reform as one solution to break the fever. The basic idea is if there were public financing of elections, then private money would not be the only path to elected office in Albany; therefore a better and more diverse group of candidates would toss their hats in the ring.

What Senate Leader Skelos stands accused of doing is forcing a government contractor to pay his son. This is the flip side of the bribery problem that often animates the fear of money in politics — that a private company will bribe a public official to do a certain official act. Instead, here we get a person in power allegedly shaking down a company and extorting money from it with the promise to help secure a lucrative multi-million-dollar government contract, among other allegations.

In the criminal complaint, the government reports catching Skelos on a wiretap bragging about his enormous power: “I’m going to be Majority Leader, I’m going to control everything. I’m going to control who gets on what committees, what legislation goes to the floor, what legislation comes through committee, the budget, everything.”

Which gets us back to the original problem that the Brennan Center identified in 2004 that too much power is held by whoever is Assembly Speaker or Senate Leader. This power needs to be dispersed back to the rank and file members of the legislature so that two individuals do not have so much leverage over the fate of the fourth biggest state in the union. The current legislative structure is a recipe for pay to play corruption pure and simple.

Ex-Assembly Speaker Silver and Senate Leader Skelos may yet prove their innocence. On the other hand, Silver and Skelos might share the fate of another famous corrupt New York politician, Boss Tweed, who took his last breath in a jail he helped build.