We’ve Still Got It! When It Comes to Corrupt Pols, New York Is Still Tops

Caricature of Boss Tweed by Thomas Nast (Photo: Wikimedia)

“I just want to say to my constituents that I am going to be arrested on Monday,” State Senator Shirley Huntley said at a press conference two weekends ago. Her voice trembled as she stood on the sidewalk in front of her Jamaica home. “I will turn myself in. I want my day in court. I don’t know the charges. I have no idea what this is about.”

She was surrounded by supporters, including clergymen vouching for her good character and declaring Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s upcoming criminal indictment to be a “political hit.”

“You can indict a ham sandwich,” Reverend Chuck Norris—yes, that is his name—explained after Ms. Huntley finished speaking. “And I’m sure that’s true. But I think that this ham sandwich that may be indicted here, maybe it should have been confiscated and taken and really devoured and used for energy to get to the next problem that this Attorney General may have. Because to come at Shirley Huntley is really something that really shouldn’t have been done. And we detest it.”

As Ms. Huntley astutely predicted, the following Monday, she was placed in handcuffs on charges that she helped funnel $30,000 to a sham nonprofit that lined the pockets of her family and friends. While it’s not exactly clear what the good reverend was saying about ham sandwich energy, the funny thing might be that even if guilty, Ms. Huntley was still probably an upgrade over the state senator she replaced, who once allegedly bit a police officer and had to be maced.

In this region of southeastern Queens, you see, it’s currently easier to count the number of elected officials—at every level of government—who aren’t under investigation than those who are. Furthermore, $30,000 counts as mere pocket change compared to the graft that got some of Ms. Huntley’s colleagues convicted in the last year.

By the way, political scandals are anything but confined to Queens County. The day before Ms. Huntley’s hastily scheduled “Emergency Press Conference,” Assemblyman Vito Lopez, the powerful boss of Brooklyn’s Democratic Party, saw his political future implode when bombshell sexual harassment charges were announced in a detailed report from Speaker Shelly Silver. Mr. Lopez declared his innocence, but additional allegations emerged in explicit detail over the coming days, shattering his control over the borough’s Democratic establishment.

And when someone as big as Mr. Lopez goes down, it’s not a controlled explosion; there’s going to be collateral damage.

Indeed, it turned out that Mr. Silver, one of the “three men in a room” that control all decision-making in Albany, had quietly shielded Mr. Lopez from previous sexual harassment claims, using over a hundred thousand dollars in taxpayer dollars to confidentially settle and shelve the cases. What’s more, the offices of State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Comptroller Tom DiNapoli were reportedly involved in the settlement, causing all of them to spend much of last week on their heels, firing off press release after press release explaining their roles and their ignorance of the details at the time. Including Ms. Huntley’s arrest, this all took place in the course of seven days. Who says politics is a dull sport?

The Empire State is no stranger to these sorts of scandals. From 1976 to 2010, New York had the most corruption convictions of public officials of any state anywhere in the country, weighing in at a cool 2,522 convictions. California, with its large population, wasn’t too far behind with 2,345, while Chicago’s legendary corruption could only deliver her home state the bronze medal, with 1,828 convictions, according to researchers at the University of Illinois’ Institute of Government and Public Affairs.

Without doing a comprehensive survey of the entire country, it at least feels like New York is going to be holding onto its lead for a little while longer. For example, at the end of July, Bronx Councilman Larry Seabrook was convicted of corruption in a trial during which prosecutors accused him of steering $1.5 million of City Council funds into sham nonprofits that enriched family members instead of providing needed services. Amusingly, the evidence included a $7 receipt for a bagel and a Snapple doctored and submitted for a $177 reimbursement.

“Bagels can be expensive,” Mr. Seabrook’s lawyer tried to explain, prompting publications like the New York Post to faux-struggle to find a $177 bagel. The answer? According to Chef Karine Bakhoum, “Warm pumpernickel bagel, sliced open, spread with créme fraiche, layered with two to three slices of Scottish smoked salmon on each side, top with sliced red onion, a slice of ripe red tomato, more créme fraiche and topped off with an ounce of the caviar.”

Mr. Seabrook’s first court appearance resulted in a mistrial, but everyone knew where he was headed. When the City Council next began and his name was called out, he happily screamed, “Still here!” Unfortunately for Mr. Seabrook, the second jury didn’t quite buy the “expensive bagel” theory and found him guilty on nine counts of fraud.

Speaking of trials gone awry, Brooklyn Assemblyman William Boyland Jr. was hit with federal bribery charges in 2011, which he successfully fought and won his innocence. The photo of him pounding his fists into the air as he walked out of the courthouse was a short-lived memory, however, as he was soon slapped with a second federal indictment containing wiretap evidence that he had solicited bribes in order to pay for the legal bills in his initial trial. A classic case of corruption if there ever was one.

Meanwhile, the same day Mr. Boyland was arrested, State Senator Carl Kruger, the former head of the Finance Committee who lorded over southeastern Brooklyn’s political scene with a Machivellian fist, was arrested on corruption charges as well. Using Benjamin Brafman—the same lawyer who successfully defended P. Diddy on gun charges, and whom Jay-Z has dropped rhymes about—he spent most of his $2 million campaign account to secure a favorable plea deal for Michael Turano, his gynecologist friend who the federal indictment suggested was more than a friend. The wiretaps said he spoke “baby talk” with the “intimate associate,” whom he lived with in a garish Mill Basin mansion along with Mr. Turano’s twin brother, also a gynecologist, and their mom—which is totally not weird at all.

On and on the story goes. Whether it’s in Staten Island, where Congressman Michael Grimm is currently being investigated by the FBI for allegedly extorting hundreds of thousands of campaign dollars from the congregation of a mystic rabbi, or the Bronx, where a plethora of investigations are looking into whether Assemblywoman Naomi Rivera handed out jobs to her boyfriends and used a nonprofit as a personal piggy bank, it seems that New York City officials aren’t completely removed from the time of Boss Tweed, although they tend to be a little more subtle than Tammany Hall-era of graft.

In an effort to combat this trend, Governor Andrew Cuomo unveiled new ethics policies last year that may help. The bill was initially entitled “The Clean Up Albany Act of 2011,” but some legislators apparently balked about the self-incriminating nature of the name, so they passed it as the “Public Integrity Reform Act of 2011.” Much better.

Whether this legislation will clean up Albany at all remains to be seen. Notably, it creates a new independent panel, the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, which can investigate corruption and refer evidence to the proper prosecutorial authorities.

And JCOPE—which some call “J-JOKE”—has received plenty of criticism. Mr. Cuomo personally appointed a strong plurality of the panel’s members, with Albany’s other political leaders, including Mr. Silver, handpicking the rest. JCOPE’s first meeting didn’t last an hour before they kicked members of the public and press out of the room so they could continue their work in private. This was in December of last year.

“This is very early in the game for JCOPE, but I don’t like the trend I’m seeing,” Fred LeBrun, an Albany Times Union columnist, wrote a good eight months later. “It appears too timid, too secretive, opaque by design and execution. A dead letter box for ethical complaints. It is behaving like the Elected Pols Protection Act of 2011 rather than the Public Integrity Reform Act.”

If it indeed it turns out to effectively be the Elected Pols Protection Act, that’s great news for New York’s potential to remain on top of the country’s corruption list. Others, however, were more pessimistic and view the state as tangibly improving its overall ethical situation.

“Many are calling the recent spate of political scandals a sign that it’s still business as usual in Albany,” former Assemblyman Michael Benjamin argued on his blog, touting the fact that all of these allegedly criminal schemes have been exposed. “I see signs of change. The censure of Lopez, the indictment of Huntley and the army of investigators looking at Assemblywoman Rivera are proof-positive that the system is willing to expose and punish transgressors.”

Mr. Schneiderman, who investigated Ms. Huntley along with Mr. DiNapoli, agreed with this line of thought when asked about the string of corruption scandals at his press conference announcing Ms. Huntley’s arrest.

“I think what you are seeing is a manifestation of the fact that there are a group of prosecutors in New York now, federal and state prosecutors, that are more committed to public integrity investigations than we’ve seen in a long, long time,” Mr. Schneiderman explained. “I think what you’re going to continue to see from my office, from our partnership with the comptroller’s office and other law enforcement agencies, is a concerted effort to make it clear this sort of conduct will not be tolerated and that anyone who abuses the public trust will be dealt with.”

Of course, with both Mr. Schneiderman and Mr. DiNapoli on the defensive following Mr. Lopez’s radioactive meltdown, one can’t help but think it’s just another day in New York politics. While New York State may be declining in population relative to the rest of the country, it certainly seems like we’re doing our best to keep pace in corruption and official misconduct. This is great news for cynics, reporters and … hmm.

We’ve Still Got It! When It Comes to Corrupt Pols, New York Is Still Tops