New York is not the most corrupt state in the country — and won’t be as long as Illinois and Louisiana remain in the union — but it’s close. The latest in the rogues’ gallery of political figures to fall is Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin, who Tuesday resigned and surrendered to authorities to face federal bribery and campaign-finance fraud-related charges.
Benjamin was appointed by Gov. Kathy Hochul, who promised to end an era of impropriety in Albany when she took office after Gov. Andrew Cuomo resigned under a cloud. Era of impropriety is an understatement. The list of ethically-challenged New York politicians is long and undistinguished.
Cuomo resigned last year after multiple women accused him of harassment; he was also accused of falsifying nursing-home death data. His former top adviser and confidant Joseph Percoco went to prison in 2018 for soliciting and accepting more than $300,000 in bribes. (Percoco was also close to Gov. Mario Cuomo, with Andrew describing him as “my father’s third son, who I sometimes think he loved the most.”) Around the same time, another former state official and friend of the governor, Alain Kaloyeros, was convicted of federal wire-fraud and conspiracy charges involving bid-rigging of state-funded high-tech construction projects in Buffalo and Syracuse and sent to prison.
Cuomo had been the last of the so-called “three men in a room” who ran state government. He was preceded out the door by the other two power brokers: Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who recently died in prison after conviction on corruption charges, and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, who resigned in 2015 following his arrest (he was later convicted) on federal corruption charges.
One shouldn’t forget Cuomo was once the state’s chief law-enforcement officer. He was preceded as attorney general by Eliot Spitzer, who would later resign the governorship amid a prostitution scandal. And Cuomo was succeeded by Eric Schneiderman, who resigned following multiple allegations of sexual and physical abuse; he later had his law license suspended.
Former US Rep. Anthony Weiner — a k a Carlos Danger — resigned in 2011 after sending lewd photos of himself to multiple women. Two years later, he aborted a comeback run for New York City mayor after more obscene texts surfaced. In 2017, he went to jail for sexting a minor. In Weiner’s case, though, one might argue that his problem was more mental illness than ethics.
But don’t forget Alan Hevesi, the former state comptroller — New York’s chief financial watchdog — who resigned after pleading guilty to a felony charge of defrauding the government. He ended up in jail after pleading guilty to separate charges of accepting gratuities for steering New York State Pension Fund investments to cronies as comptroller.
Something is truly rotten in the state of New York. Progressive politicians waste resources with unproductive government spending that displaces more efficient, market-based solutions. But at least they don’t do it for their personal benefit, at least not directly. The scoundrels described above could not even make the pretense of acting in the public interest.
Unfortunately, help is not on the way. The new state budget replaces the feckless Joint Commission on Public Ethics with a partisan and likely toothless Commission on Ethics and Lobbying in Government.
The new commission will have nine members appointed by Democrats (three by the governor, two each by the Assembly speaker and Senate majority leader and one each by the attorney general and the comptroller) and only two by Republicans (one each by the Assembly and Senate minority leaders). Does anyone believe a commission appointed by the state’s political elites will be an effective, independent watchdog?
Corruption should be an important issue in the upcoming election. Misbehaving politicians and those who abet them should not get a pass. Unless voters insist on leaders willing to aggressively address the issue of ethics in government, New York will retain its dubious distinction as a national leader in the production of sleazy politicians.
Joel Zinberg, MD, is a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and director of public health and wellness at the Paragon Health Institute.
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