John O'Connell

Public corruption depends on civic apathy


People like to think the best of others, including elected and appointed officials at all levels, from your local village to the high hills of Albany or D.C. Our confidence is almost always affirmed, because most local public servants are honorable, honest and hard-working; they earn our trust and deserve our praise. From village trustees to town council members to county, state and federal legislators, dedicated folks give of themselves to serve the public interest, sacrificing their time and energies for the good of their communities.

Then there are the thieves.

Though there have been corrupt public officials since forever, and we’re all sinners, we still don’t like to hear about knaves who steal our taxes for personal gain. Whether it’s the “quid” of a rigged bid on a lucrative contract to pay off the “quo” of a campaign contribution, or just plain kickbacks, kick-ups, favors or cash, corruption does way more damage than squandering the public’s money. It destroys the public’s trust and tarnishes the reputation of the righteous, making all politicians look bad.

When citizens lose their confidence that the system works for them, they turn apathetic. In last week’s Nassau County Democratic Party primary election, Laura Curran picked up an outstanding 78 percent victory, with more than 23,000 votes of the 29,400 cast. Sadly, though, the total ballots cast were merely 7.5 percent of the registered county Democrats. That doesn’t make Curran any less overwhelming a winner, but it does point to an insidious indifference too many of us have to the relevance of our institutions.

The federal indictments of still-in-office County Executive Ed Mangano, former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and — just in the last half-dozen years — as many as 15 other state elected officials, of both parties, lead the civic-minded to lose faith in the system. And these are just the criminal behaviors; there are the winks and nods of “lulus,” questionable payments to legislators that Albany’s political traditions shield from scrutiny.

Current and recent attempts at ethics reform have been weak or go nowhere, even when announced with triumphant fanfare, like Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s infamous Commission to Investigate Public Corruption. It was formed in 2013 to look into criminal or unethical acts by state officials, but Cuomo disbanded it only eight months later, amid claims by some of its appointed members that his office meddled in its affairs, especially when it turned its sights on Cuomo’s people.

It took the federal government, in the person of U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, to bring Silver and Skelos to court on corruption charges in 2015. Silver’s conviction has since been overturned. Neither man is in jail, which further deflates public confidence in justice.

Where there’s money, there’s greed, and the biggest money is in government contracts. A year ago, 10 state officials and contractors, including a former close aide to Cuomo, were charged by Bharara and the state attorney general with rigging economic development contracts worth more than $780 million.

Since then, Reinvent Albany, the Citizens Budget Commission and the Fiscal Policy Institute, with support from the League of Women Voters and other good-government groups, have been demanding both executive action and new “clean contracting” laws. They want to compel more competitive and transparent contracting by all state agencies and authorities. They want to transfer responsibility for all economic development awards to the Empire State Development Corporation, and end awards by state nonprofits and SUNY. The comptroller would approve all state contracts over $250,000. State authorities, state corporations and state nonprofits would be prohibited from doing business with their board members. There’d be a new “database of deals” enabling the public to see the value of all subsidies awarded to a business.

The leaders of the State Senate and Assembly all say they support the concept of clean contracting. Bills A.6355-2017, S.3984-2017 and A8175/S6613 were introduced, but the legislative session ended in June, and the bills with them. So nothing has changed. The public must demand that the governor and legislators take action. The trials of the 10 accused bid-rigging officials and contractors begin in January, as the Legislature begins its next session.

Many exasperated citizens who refuse to give in to apathy are calling for legislative term limits, and even a state constitutional convention. Neither action would eliminate corruption, but they could bring positive changes that incumbent-preserving, party-controlled redistricting and bribery disguised as campaign contributions currently deny us. There are many who vehemently oppose a state constitutional convention, fearing that it might subject state pension systems and other sacrosanct funds and institutions to raids in search of radical solutions, but many others see no other way to break the systemic grip of greed, corruption and hypocritical lip service that is too prevalent in Albany and elsewhere.

John O’Connell retired as executive editor of the Herald Community Newspapers last year, after 20 years in journalism. Comments about this column?