All These Arrests, and the Bigger Picture of Reform

What do we call last week? Some are calling it “Preet Week,” after U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who’s bringing the cases.

We saw two rounds of arrests and indictments for different bribery schemes. Last Tuesday, Senator Malcolm Smith (D-Queens), recently named “chairman” of the “Independent Democratic Conference” that broke off and empowered Republicans to continue ruling the State Senate, was arrested along with NYC Councilmember Dan Halloran (R-Queens), two Republican party officials, and two village officials from Spring Valley in Rockland County.

The Malcolm Smith scheme, described by the Daily News’ Juan Gonzalez as “boneheaded,” essentially involved Smith (with Halloran as middleman) bribing the Republican party officials to help him get into the Republican mayoral primary, funded by money from a crooked real estate deal in Rockland County.

And then, while we were all still wrapping our heads around the six arrests from Tuesday in the Smith scheme, BOOM — the feds arrest Assemblyman Eric Stevenson (D-Bronx) in a straight-up “pay me to introduce this bill that will give your business a monopoly” deal. And they followed it up with the revelation that Assemblyman Nelson Castro has been a federal informant for four years.

The Bottom Line

New York’s had a corruption problem for longer than any of us have been paying attention. We in MYD know it, and we’ve acted against it — including taking action after corrupt Senator Pedro Espada held the State Senate hostage for perks and money.

But let’s put things in perspective — these arrests this past week, while shocking in their suddenness and their proximity to each other, were for pretty mind-boggingly dumb scams. None of us thinks Malcolm Smith had a prayer of winning a race for mayor on the Democratic or Republican lines. And the Eric Stevenson scheme was so obvious and clumsy, it barely makes sense.

The fact is: this corruption doesn’t exist in a vacuum — and in both cases, the most uncomfortable fact to acknowledge is that if the scams had involved campaign money instead of under-the-table payoffs, the indictments may never have even happened. That’s how loose our campaign finance system is.

The system reeks of pay-to-play even at the best of times. The thing these crimes demonstrate most is that, with our system the way it is, it is a very short jump indeed from the everyday, ordinary business of financial “support” of politicians by interested business owners and lobbyists on the one hand, and straight-up bribery on the other. It’s going to take more than a few good prosecutors to clean up Albany — it’s going to take a culture shift.

And that’s why MYD is supporting the Fair Elections New York campaign. Learn more about the fight to fix our campaign finance laws here.