U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara insisted in a speech today that the environment of state capitals like Albany must change in order to properly do the important work of governing.
The prosecutor who brought down former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and ex-State Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos on fraud and extortion charges last year addressed the Tina Brown Live Media’s American Justice Summit at John Jay College this morning. He refused to back away from his claims that Albany is a “cauldron of corruption,” and had an endemic and systemic atmosphere of permissiveness that allows for misconduct, just like some corporations do.
“Culture matters. There’s more corruption in certain firms on Wall Street than in others, there’s more corruption in some state capitals than others,” he said. “Institutions have to be established in a way, and have to be governed in a way, and have to have a certain kind of culture that brings out the best in people.”
Mr. Bharara stressed that he believed only a small percentage of officials in Albany engage in illegal activity, but suggested that the environment there encouraged their more upright peers to overlook misconduct. He urged politicians to report to and cooperate with prosecutors when they see evidence of wrongdoing.
“Culture is whether people who think bad things are going on come forward and say something, instead of being afraid and watching it happen in silence,” he said. “Good people have to come forward.”
The U.S. Attorney acknowledged that many people are either unaware or indifferent to what goes on in state government, but insisted that it impacts people’s lives—and so must be straightened out.
“Legislatures actually matter,” he said. “They decide, often, what kind of taxes you’re going to pay, they decide how your children are educated, they decide what is a crime and what is not.”
Worse, corruption discourages the public from taking an interest in government, perpetuating a cycle of growing misdeeds and growing distrust.
“Apart from the policies that they put in place, which may be done for corrupt reasons, and may be done for the special interests and the people who have money,” he said. “It undermines people’s faith in democracy, it makes people turn away in disgust and it makes people not want to go into public service.”
In the end, he asserted there was a limit to what he could do, and argued lawmakers have to take it on themselves to change Albany.
“You can’t solve anything fundamentally with prosecutions,” he said.