NEW YORK — U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara told a new state commission Tuesday that corruption in New York politics has created a “show-me-the-money culture” that’s permeating state and local officials, both Democrats and Republicans, and has reached intolerable proportions.
“Public corruption, based on all evidence, appears rampant,” Bharara told the Commission to Investigate Public Corruption at its first public hearing. “And the ranks of those convicted in office have swelled to absolutely unacceptable levels.”
Earlier in the day, Bharara’s office moved to take away the pensions of state officials convicted of corruption. The office filing seeks to include pensions as part of the property convicted officials would have to forfeit. It comes in the case against Democratic state Sen. Malcolm Smith of Queens, whose accused of scheming with officials in New York City and Rockland County to raise funds for his one-time mayoral campaign.
U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch testified about “self-interest and double-dealing” in New York politics. She called for “truly transparent financial disclosure” by politicians to ward off conflicts of interest. She also called on honest politicians to report misconduct by colleagues.
“I do think there is room for public officials who see this wrongdoing and who hear these conversations to step up,” she said.
Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. said outdated state laws “handcuff” state and local prosecutors from prosecuting corruption cases. He called for changes to make state laws similar to federal rules of evidence that can be used in courts.
Dozens of New York officials have been convicted of corruption in recent decades, but their lucrative public pensions have remained protected by a provision of the state constitution. That protection hasn’t yet been tested in corruption cases, but the commission planned to use the hearing to focus on new rules to crack down on official misconduct.
“Convicted politicians should not grow old comfortably cushioned by a pension paid for by the very people they betrayed,” Bharara said.
Meanwhile, Bill Samuels, a co-founder of Effective NY, is urging the commission to investigate millions of dollars in campaign contributions by business interests formed as limited liability corporations.
Samuels wants the panel to require detailed disclosure of the contributions to the so-called “housekeeping accounts” of political parties. The housekeeping accounts, as opposed to direct donations to candidates, have few restrictions under law.
The commission, created under the Moreland Act by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, has subpoena power, but can’t directly investigate the Legislature, which is a separate and equal branch of government. Cuomo, however, has directed the commission to investigate the records of the Board of Elections and the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, both executive branch agencies. That probe would consider the connection between campaign contributions, lobbying and lawmakers.
Also, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has deputized the prosecutor members of the commission, which could allow them to investigate lawmakers. But the commission’s primary role seems aimed at developing new laws to address official misconduct, which has dogged New York politics for decades.
The Assembly’s Democratic majority has hired an attorney to address requests for information and other action by the commission directed to the Assembly, as has the Senate majority, controlled by Republicans and the four-member Independent Democratic Conference. A spokesman for the Independent Democratic Conference confirmed the group has also hired a law firm.
Meanwhile, the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School plans to push for a system of public funds to match smaller donations as a way to limit the influence of big money donors in campaign fundraising. The center, which first called Albany “dysfunctional” years ago, also seeks lower campaign contribution limits and an independent enforcer of campaign finance laws.
Samuels, of Effective NY, and the New Roosevelts reform group on Tuesday echoed that sentiment.
“While there may be no more incidents of flat-out corruption, what we will see — for the very first time — (are) legal conflicts of interest that exist which influence how our state government works every day,” Samuels said.