Influence, Corruption, and Misconduct: Albany's Lesson for America

February was not a kind month to New York State politicians.

Last week, only a few days after declaring his candidacy, New York Gov. David Paterson announced that he would not run for reelection. Why the sudden change? It came to light that one of Paterson's top aides was accused of assaulting his live-in girlfriend in New York City, and that members of the Governor's State Police security detail urged her to avoid pressing charges. The night before the woman was to appear in court to seek a restraining order against the aide, Gov. Paterson himself called to "chat." She failed to appear in court the next day. Paterson is now under pressure to resign.

Also in February, State Sen. Hiram Monserrate was expelled from the Senate after a criminal conviction resulting from an incident in which he cut his girlfriend's face with broken glass in an allegedly drunken rage. Monserrate was originally charged with felony assault but convicted on a misdemeanor. Monserrate actually had the chutzpah to sue the Senate for reinstatement, but a federal judge declined to reinstate him.

New York's Congressional delegation took a hit in February too, when Rep. Charles B. Rangel, chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, was cited for violating House ethics rules for taking advantage of rent-controlled housing in New York City and for failing to pay taxes on offshore rental properties. Rangel refuses to accede to pressure to resign his chairmanship, though he has stepped down "temporarily."

But that's not all. Former NYPD Commissioner Bernard Kerik was sentenced to four years in the slammer last month after pleading guilty to federal charges in 2009. Kerik was accused of tax evasion for accepting gifts from contractors while head of NYPD and making false statements to the federal government when he was nominated to be secretary of Homeland Security in 2004.

Welcome to New York State. Tammany Hall may be gone, but influence-peddling, corruption, and sordid tales of misconduct remain an integral part of New York State politics.

The recent ethical and legal lapses by public officials are not the exception, but the rule here. Paterson, as lieutenant governor, claimed that the state's top job in 2008 when his predecessor, Eliot Spitzer, resigned after the FBI discovered that he was "Client No. 9," a patron in a $5,000-per-night prostitution ring. The notoriously arrogant Spitzer, who once proclaimed that "I am a f___ing steamroller," was elected with 70% of the vote in 2006, campaigning on the slogan "On Day One, Everything Changes." That would be everything except Spitzer's fetish for expensive prostitutes, it seems. Almost immediately after Spitzer's resignation, Paterson was forced to admit that he'd also had extramarital affairs, including one with a state employee.

Prior to his resignation, Spitzer had been under investigation for allegedly using the State Police to get political dirt on then-Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno. Several aides were admonished by the state Attorney General's office, and the State Police Commissioner resigned shortly thereafter. The Spitzer administration never got Bruno, but the FBI did: In January, Bruno was convicted of fraud charges for receiving millions in "consulting fees" from companies seeking business with the state. Bruno, who could get twenty years, awaits sentencing in May.

The sleaze in New York State politics is not limited to the Executive and the Senate. It extends to just about every branch of government and every institution.

In 2006, State Comptroller Alan Hevesi, who once declared that the finances of Erie County were such a wreck that the county "needed adult supervision," agreed to a plea deal after having been indicted on fraud charges for using state vehicles and employees as personal attendants for his wife. Hevesi paid $200,000 in restitution and resigned.

In 2003, Michael Boxley, a top aide to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, was arrested and charged with raping two Assembly staffers. Boxley pled guilty to lesser misconduct charges; Silver and the Assembly settled a lawsuit accusing them of failing to investigate the accusations against Boxley for a half-million dollars. Boxley was given probation; he was readmitted to the bar in 2006.

And if that's not unbelievable enough, in 1993, Sol Wachtler, the Chief Judge of the NYS Court of Appeals, was sent to federal prison on racketeering and extortion charges after making kidnapping threats against the daughter of his ex-mistress. Wachtler also managed to regain his law license, and he is now a professor of law at Touro College.

Why are these awful behaviors so commonplace among New York's political elites? New York is a high-tax state with an activist government and a weak private sector. Politicians get to control vast sums of money and make grand policy decisions. Arrogant, ambitious people go into politics, not the private sector, because that's where the action is.

Consequently, the state has a political culture in which nothing can be accomplished unless you "know people" or are "connected" somehow. This breeds a system in which there are two sets of rules: rules for the elites and rules for everybody else. Want a state job in law enforcement, a handgun permit, or a construction contract with the state? Then you'd better "know somebody." If you don't, you're out of luck. After a while, the people in power doling out all the favors start to act like they're God.

This kind of behavior seems prevalent in other high-tax, one-party, big-government "blue" states like New Jersey and Illinois, and less prevalent in the small-government "red" states like Utah and Oklahoma. It's no surprise that private-sector economic growth occurs primarily in the "red" states, while unionized government bureaucracy is the only "growth industry" in the "blue" states.

Perhaps it's a lesson that voters in Middle America might want to remember when activist, high-tax, one-party big government in Washington, D.C. is a choice on the ballot this November.
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