ProPublica

Journalism in the Public Interest

Cancel

Capitol Offenses: Bribes, Wires, and Little Surprise

Stephen Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” even has a crack about Albany corruption. Can it really go that far back? Herewith, a spin through some recent lowlights, which suggests not much has changed in a century or two.

.

New York State Capitol in Albany, N.Y. (flickr user wallyg)

Here at ProPublica, we’re great believers in the idea that public revelation of scandal leads to reforms. Over the years, we’ve seen plenty of evidence that sunshine is a disinfectant, from the New Orleans police department to California’s nursing board.

But I have to admit that there may be one pestilent corner of the body politic where such cause and effect physics don’t yet seem to apply, a black hole within which the forces of greed have to date overwhelmed all good sense and every call for redemption.

You’ve already guessed, of course, that we’re talking about Albany, New York.

Like many of the notorious outposts on America’s map of graft, Albany has a storied history of dishonest behavior. When Abraham Lincoln wanted to push the 13th Amendment through a recalcitrant Congress, his Secretary of State, William Seward, told the president he’d need to make some ethically dicey promises, work best left to an operative skilled in the darkest arts of politics.

“I’ll fetch a friend from Albany,” Seward, a former New York governor, is quoted as saying in the movie "Lincoln." “Spare you the exposure and liability.”

It doesn’t appear much has changed. This week alone, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York went before the cameras twice to announce indictments of state legislators. Thursday’s announcement – Bronx Assemblyman Eric Stevenson was arraigned on bribery charges – came with a twist: a legislator had been wearing a wire for the Feds for months, maybe years.

The collective shiver in the Capitol scored pretty well on the Richter scale.

But evidently, there was more to fear than future indictments. Stevenson, on a recording, seems to have given some thought to the idea he might one day be busted.

Were he to be caught, he threatened, “somebody’s going to the cemetery.”

 Murder. Now, that would still rate as a pretty unusual Albany crime, at least outside the novels of William Kennedy.

Anyway, as a lifelong New Yorker, I went searching for a novel insight into all the wrongdoing. I took the handy guide offered on Wednesday by The New York Times after the week’s first round of indictments.

I started at the array of photos and applicable misdeeds – really, it resembled a yearbook layout former State Comptroller Alan Hevesi might have put together in the prison library – and re-read the news accounts behind the lineup of photos: the indictments and the plea deals, the teary allocutions and the withering remarks from federal judges; the repeated, and ultimately erroneous declarations that Albany had hit rock bottom, the pledges of reform, the terms of the jail sentences and the hours of community service assigned.

The cases pretty well run the gamut. Veterans, freshmen, members of the State Senate and State Assembly. Democrats. Republicans. Payoffs and paybacks, sex and drugs.

Not all the names will be familiar to people outside New York. Not all the names, in fact, will be familiar to New Yorkers. The relative anonymity of our representatives in Albany might have something to do with their proclivities. I’ll do my best to help everyone keep things straight.

First off, I can’t say I found any magical thread linking them all. But a few noteworthy patterns did emerge that suggested that, for whatever reason, these folks have a powerful belief that they enjoy impunity.

One consistent problematic habit: They love to shop. Really love to shop. We’re talking Buzz Bissinger style shopping. Big ticket items.

A Bentley, for instance, for Carl Kruger, a powerful state senator who, among other noteworthy achievements, had taken a stand against gay marriage. Parking certainly wasn’t a problem. He and his boyfriend lived, along with the boyfriend’s mother, in a house originally built for a mobster. The architect for the house, prior to being slain on orders of the mobster, had thought to include a driveway.

Diane Gordon, a fairly undistinguished lawmaker from Brooklyn, got rung up on some fairly non-routine bribery counts. She was looking for more than a car. She wanted a house. Maybe more than one. But however many, they had to have, among other amenities, walk-in closets.

“One hand washes another,” she once told her co-conspirator. Right, and then, hands washed, Gordon needed to get back to that ample closet and pick out the day’s outfit for Albany.

Pedro Espada might be one Albany felon known outside New York. The state senator’s exploits – using a health care operation in a disadvantaged part of the Bronx to line his impeccably tailored pockets – made Page 1 of the Times with some frequency.

Part of his front page appeal was his famously expensive taste for sushi and lobster. Turns out, though, his crowning food shopping achievement was the $5,000 he and others spent eating at Yonkers Raceway. I repeat – 5 grand spent at Yonkers. For crimes that boggle the mind that one’s hard to beat.

Then, of course, there was Assemblyman Brian McLaughlin. He’s the guy who was simultaneously a legislative leader and the boss of the nation’s largest municipal labor council. Even in Albany, you’d think that might have constituted a red flag. Conflict? What conflict?

In the end, McLaughlin wasn’t that conflicted. He stole from both the state and his union – and, yes, a Little League team, too – and had to forfeit some $3 million to the court.

I actually don’t know what he shopped for. But suffice it to say the man had options.

At his sentencing, McLaughlin made a bid for leniency. He’d turned things around. He was in Alcoholics Anonymous, though that might not have been the addiction he needed to address first.

The judge wasn’t much moved. He noted that the size and variety of McLaughlin’s thefts – “brazen and perversely creative” were his precise words – “staggers the mind.”

McLaughlin got a decade in a federal lockup.

Which leads me to what turned out to be both my funniest and most dispiriting moment – hey, like I said, this is an Albany story – as I worked my way through The Times’s presentation of perps.

While, sure, I chuckled darkly at recalling that Hiram Monserrate, prior to taking up his Assembly seat in Albany, had retired from the New York City Police Department on a psychiatric disability. Worrying that he might be a danger to himself or others, news reports asserted, the department moved quickly to strip him of his guns.

Great. Take away his guns, but give him a gavel, and a member item budget. Alas, physical violence was Monserrate’s undoing, his assault of his girlfriend hastening his departure from the Capitol.

And yes, it was charming to revisit Mike Cole’s night out with interns. He got so drunk with them he wound up spending the night on the floor on an intern’s bedroom. His punishment was the loss of $9,000 and a helping of Albany irony: He no longer would serve as the ranking member of the Assembly Committee on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse.

No, my favorite revelation was learning of the posh trappings at one of the federal prisons that wound up housing several of Albany’s malefactors.

This was The Daily News’s portrait of the federal facility in Otisville, N.Y.

“The prison’s store doubles as a delicatessen, serving up such favorites as rib steak, gefilte fish, kugel, salmon, chorizo and smoked oysters. It’s only a 90-minute drive for visitors from the city, and it has bocce courts, horseshoe pits and enough room to play soccer. Convicts could stay up until 2 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights watching HBO, Showtime and Cinemax … Memorial Day and the Fourth of July are celebrated with cookouts serving hamburgers, hot dogs, watermelon and potato salad.”

“The food is right. The commissary is right. The officers don’t bother you. There are a lot of courses you can take. You had weights inside and outside, free weights and machines,” one inmate told The News. “Food, activities, TV and movies, and visitations are the four things you judge a facility by. Things were good.”

The latest assortment of Albany’s finest might well then take heart. If things go badly at trial, ask for Otisville, a federal lockup that appears to be the next best thing to Albany.

Gunther Steinberg

April 5, 2013, 6:08 p.m.

Politics is and always has been corrupt in the vast majority of cases. I doubt that there is an elected or appointed official who has not cut a corner or compromised his principles in the name of getting something done. Politics is about power and privilege, and its practitioners rarely stop to think when they battle to acquire both.
  Look at how many members of Congress have compromised their principles because the Party leadership demanded it. They fear for their jobs if they do not accede to the demands of people with power and/or money.  Just look how the GOP PACs and Grover Norquist operate - threatening the politician with opposition at the next primary and election.
They can and do intimidate and make a righteous person compromise his strong beliefs - all for power, privilege and money. There are too few exceptions.

NY is bad, so is Philly in terms of an entrenched machine that never really shuts down and keeps churning out its political clones. Reminds me of a book called Shame of the Cities published around 1910 or so ... seems nothing has really changed but the names.

There’s an inherent problem that nobody goes into politics for the sake of getting themselves less power.

I actually suspect New York might be slightly better than most states, because this sort of behavior is something of an open secret.  I’ve heard more than one elected official on local news refer to the “blue line” around Albany, an allusion both to the low temperature and the philosophy that cops shouldn’t rat each other out.  I recently also heard a similar adaptation of the Vegas tagline, “what happens in Albany, stays in Albany.”

If people are willing to talk about it in terms like that when the public listens, either we’re improving or in such bad shape that nobody cares.

Whenever these sorts of stories come to light, though, I’m reminded of someone telling me that the ancient Athenians elected citizens to office through random lot.  At the end of their terms, they were put on trial for their actions, with acts of corruption or otherwise against the interests of the people punishable by fine, servitude, imprisonment, or execution, depending on the severity.

I’m not saying that we should execute politicians…but I’m also not saying that we shouldn’t.

As mentioned, it’s not a new problem, unfortunately, and conventional solutions don’t seem to work.

Get Updates

Stay on top of what we’re working on by subscribing to our email digest.

optional