In a shocking, but not unexpected development, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver was arrested today and indicted in federal court on bribery and corruption charges. The Speaker Silver’s arrest further reveals the crucial role the Moreland Commission played in bringing corruption in New York State government to light, a role which Common Cause New York helped to encourage through our Moreland Monday series of reports . As if we needed more proof, the indictment underscores, yet again, the sorry state of ethics enforcement in New York. The circumstances around this case—that a top state lawmaker is alleged to have baldly abused his office to take in millions in kickbacks and graft for personal gain—are particularly egregious. But this is only the latest scandal involving legislator’s outside income. If outside income is to be permitted at all, it is past time for New York to clearly delimit the types and amounts of outside income which lawmakers may earn.
New York’s leaders must respond quickly with a serious overhaul of state ethics laws. Lawmakers should advance a plan that includes expanded ethics oversight, stronger disclosure laws, stricter oversight of lobbyist activities, and campaign finance reforms. New York State’s shameful resistance to this common sense and long overdue effort is shown by the refusal of the Governor and legislative leaders to appoint the ethics law Review Commission, which state statue mandated be appointed by June 1, 2014. In July and then again earlier this month, Common Cause New York and the New York City Bar Association wrote asking that the Commission be appointed. The silence from Governor Cuomo and Speaker Silver, as well as the other legislative leaders has been deafening.
Common Cause New York supports requiring New York's Legislature to work full-time for New Yorkers along with strict limits on outside income. In the meantime, New York State needs stricter disclosure laws requiring elected officials to fully open their books to public scrutiny and a wholesale overhaul of ethics laws and enforcement. New Yorkers deserve a Legislature that does not function under a persistent and permanent ethical cloud.
Silver’s arrest for alleged kickbacks involving real estate developers for tax abatements also underscores the need to close the glaring LLC loophole in our campaign finance system. LLCs should be treated as corporations and subject to the same $5,000 campaign contribution limit. Today’s complaint points out that the developers implicated in the kickback scheme were able to contribute hundreds of thousands of dollars annually to Silver and campaign committees he controls.
Recent ethics reforms we worked hard to achieve increasing the specificity of outside income disclosure requirements helped lead to today’s indictment, but we have a long way to go. When there is full transparency, corrupt practices are exposed and discouraged. It is in legislators’ self-interest to establish a clear bright line standard. Legislators need guidance; no individual should be trusted to make up their own minds about what is acceptable.