Last Updated: 12:27 AM, November 9, 2011 The federal corruption trial of ex-City Councilman Larry Seabrook got under way this week as the case of Assemblyman William Boyland, Jr. went to the jury in the same Manhattan courthouse — and others of my former colleagues are on their way there. Defendants may have to take tickets like in a deli.
New York politics sometimes seems like one unending narrative of corruption.
It fills me with sadness — and, increasingly,
increasingly, anger – to see so many people I’ve known and worked with descend to this.
When I entered Bronx politics 30 years ago, I jokingly handed my Democratic district leader a copy of “Plunkitt of Tammany Hall” – the book in which George Washington Plunkitt, a long-ago Democratic Party leader, publicly revelled in the kind of practical politics and “honest” graft that gave politicians a bad name.
Yet Plunkitt’s spirit plainly still rules the hearts of too many New York politicians.
Boyland and I were sworn in together in the Assembly Chamber on the same day in March 2003, after winning special elections the week before. Ironically, I filled a vacancy created when Gloria Davis stepped down after her conviction for corruption. And Larry Seabrook’s support helped me win the party’s backing in that 2003 special election.
During my time in the Legislature, I saw Alan Hevesi, Brian McLaughlin, Guy Velella, Clarence Norman, Diane Gordon, Anthony Seminerio, Efrain Gonzalez and Vincent Leibell carted off to prison. Former Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno retired before his federal indictment and conviction (which was overturned). Carl Kruger and Pedro Espada are under indictment and awaiting trial.
Among them, that’s well over two centuries’ of time in public office that’s now soiled.
Nor is that all. Ex-City Councilman Rafael Castaneria Colon, for whom I first volunteered in 1981, was convicted of stealing city funds. Former Rep. Robert Garcia and Mario Biaggi had to resign from Congress in the Wedtech scandal. (Garcia, who I counted as friend, later had his conviction overturned, but his reputation was not easily restored.)
As Plunkitt put it, “They seen their opportunities and they took ’em.”
In my old neighborhood, recovering addicts talk about fellow addicts who’ve died of drug overdoses or are serving prison terms. Today, when my former colleagues and I gather, we talk about other former colleagues who’ve passed away, served time or are imprisoned.
Over the years, my sense of hurt and disbelief has given way to cynicism and anger.
When I first took office, my friend Pat Canale plaintively told me in his heavy Italian accent, “Michael, just stay honest!” As a small businessman and property owner, Pat had lost confidence in the honesty of the politicians who represented him and his family. During my eight years in office, he’d often call to ask if I was heeding his advice — something my wife would echo.
The seemingly constant corruption weakens public support for politicians – and smears the real good that many elected officials achieve.
What can restore public trust? Start with enforceable and comprehensive ethics reform. Indeed, the state Legislature should enact a “theft of honest services” felony statute requiring convicted lawmakers to forfeit their pension benefits.
[The late] Tony Seminerio (secretly recorded by McLaughlin), asked, “What the [expletive] does it mean we’re elected officials? It means sh-t!”
Sorry, Tony. It means something. Elected officials are meant to be trustworthy, hard-working public servants who put the common good above personal gain.
There are plenty of opportunities to make it in America. The honorable ones don’t include graft, “honest” or otherwise.
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