Suffolk Closeup: Cleaning up corruption

COURTESY PHOTO Assemblyman Fred Thiele Jr. (I-Sag Harbor)

“We’ve had the governor’s right-hand man and the two former leaders of the legislature convicted of crimes,” said State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele, Jr. (I-Sag Harbor) whose district includes Shelter Island. “There’s no clearer picture than that as to why ethics reform needs to be on the top of the state’s to-do list.”

Mr. Thiele is a leader in promoting enactment of what is being referred to as the “Anti-Corruption Amendment.” It seeks to amend the New York State Constitution by creating a single and independent New York State Government Integrity Commission.

It would replace the state’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) and Legislative Ethics Commission (LEC). The problem with JCOPE, says Mr. Thiele, is that it is “controlled” by the governor and the problem with LEC is that it is “controlled” by the state legislature.

Both have been “complete and total failures,” Mr. Thiele said.

“The new single commission would be responsible for ensuring consistent enforcement” of ethics standards, he notes, in “both the executive and legislative branches.” Moreover, it “would have widened powers” to punish “misconduct.” Also, it would “be responsible for the enforcement of campaign finance laws” and “would operate under substantial transparency laws, with several provisions in place to ensure fair and just appointment of members.”

It would be comparable, according to the assemblyman, to the state’s Commission on Judicial Conduct, which serves as a watchdog on the judiciary “and is independent. We need something like that in regard to the executive and legislative branches.”

The legislation that will be before the State Assembly and State Senate when they begin their 2019 session in January states: “The people of New York expect officers and employees of the state to observe laws, rules and regulations that specify high standards of ethical conduct designed to avoid the reality and appearance of corruption, conflict of interest, self-dealing and breach of the public trust. Equally they expect that candidates for state office and others seeking to influence state elections to observe laws, rules and regulations designed to regulate actual and potential corruption and conflicts of interest by regulating the influence of money in politics and making transparent the financing and expenditures of efforts to influence voters.”

“Achieving this goal,” it continues, “requires an independent and non-partisan agency with jurisdiction over matters pertaining to both the legislative and executive branches of government and that has the needed powers to train, advise, interpret, adopt rules and regulations, conduct fair hearings that afford due process and impose appropriate sanctions on a consistent basis so that, with fair and equal application of the law, no person or entity, no matter what their status, influence or role in government, can place themselves above the law…”

New York State government most recently got a grade of D-minus for ethics from the Center for Public Integrity, which cited its “unending string of scandals” that “fail to spur meaningful reform.” The Center is a Washington-based nonprofit, non-partisan investigative journalism organization with a mission “to reveal abuses of power, corruption and dereliction of duty in powerful public and private institutions in order to cause them to operate with honesty, integrity, accountability and put the public interest first.”

And that was in late 2015. The Center noted: “First came the Assembly speaker, the powerful Democrat Sheldon Silver, arrested for exploiting his position by accepting millions in bribes and kickbacks. Then it was the Senate leader, Republican Dean Skelos, who federal prosecutors charged with bribery, extortion and fraud … Skelos was the fifth straight Senate leader to be charged with corruption.” And there had been many other lesser state officials charged and found guilty of corruption.

This was before Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo’s closest aide, Joseph Percoco, and yet more other state officials, were accused and convicted of corruption. The trial in September of Mr. Percoco was punctuated by the code name he used in taking bribes: “ziti.”

As The New York Times account of the trial related, the code-name was a “term used in the HBO mob drama, ‘The Sopranos.’ Typical was this kind of exchange, after a payment from a company to Mr. Percoco was slow to arrive. ‘I have no ziti,’ Mr. Percoco wrote [in an e-mail].

Another time, Mr. Percoco seemed more testy, “Where the hell is the ziti???” The pasta parlance almost became a running joke during the trial, but it also provided a powerful symbol for the prosecution.

Corruption in state government is no joke. Mr. Percoco was sentenced to seven years in jail. Mr. Silver also got seven. Mr. Skelos, of Rockville Centre, was sentenced to four years and the judge added three months to that for his “false testimony.”

This related to his having taken the stand “and tried to spin a tale about an innocent, doting father” just trying to help his son, when, said a sentencing memo sent to the judge from the prosecution, he was a “brass-knuckled power broker … who shook down constituents for bribes.”