Legend has it that when Boss Tweed was at the height of his power, he dismissed criticism of his corrupt ways and means with a single, memorable phrase: What are you going to do about it?
The cartoonist Thomas Nast made the phrase famous—some believe he actually fabricated Tweed’s response—as a symbol of official arrogance during the Gilded Age. Tweed is long gone, but the spirit of his supposed response—What are you going to do about it?—is alive and well in New York.
In the last week, yet another senior member of the State Senate, John Sampson of Brooklyn, was arrested on corruption charges, while two of Comptroller John Liu’s former campaign aides were found guilty of fraud. Mr. Liu, who is running for mayor, was positively Tweed-like. As The Observer reports this week, Mr. Liu suggested that prosecutors “put up or shut up.” How’s that for remorse?
In the aftermath of Senator Sampson’s indictment, Governor Cuomo reiterated his pledge to pass tough anticorruption legislation before lawmakers wrap up their session next month. Mr. Sampson’s indictment, the governor said, added “more of an urgency to do it, and denial is not a life strategy.”
That’s fine, but it’s not enough. The governor needs to make the mess in Albany his top priority. New York has become an ethical laughingstock—even more so than usual. Two members of the State Legislature, one from each house, have been secretly taping conversations with their colleagues. The legislators, Assemblyman Nelson Castro and State Senator Shirley Huntley, agreed to wear a wire after law-enforcement officials confronted them with evidence of ethical lapses.
If this all sounds comical, well, Senator Sampson’s case adds a truly menacing twist to the usual narrative of political shenanigans. Prosecutors say that Mr. Sampson secretly sought to get the names of witnesses who were cooperating in a federal investigation of his office. The senator allegedly said that he wanted to “take them out”—presumably not for a cup of coffee.
The U.S. attorney who investigated Senator Sampson, Loretta E. Lynch, said the case was “one of the most extreme examples of political hubris we have yet seen.”
Mr. Cuomo has hardly been silent about the ethical failings of his colleagues in the Legislature. But he needs to be louder and more forceful, because, fairly or not, he is going to have to answer for the behavior of corrupt legislators when or if he decides to run for higher office.
Of course, presidential politics should be the least important reason for getting serious about cleaning up Albany. But self-interest has always been a great motivator in the political world, and it is certainly in Mr. Cuomo’s interest to scrub Albany of the dirt that has accumulated over the last several years—including the two-plus years of his tenure as governor.
Mr. Cuomo and his allies would have you believe that his election marked the beginning of dramatic change in Albany. The persistence of political perp walks in New York would seem to indicate that real change has been elusive.
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