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A Corrupted Debate

August 6, 2014
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The City and State publication is having a contest. As part of the contest, readers are supposed to guess who will be indicted next in Albany. If they guess right, they can win a free dinner with the publication’s editors.  

Wow. What an announcement. So timely and topical. So clever. So exciting. And what a draw – dinner with editors Morgan Pheme and Gerson Borrero!

OK, we understand that journalism is a business. We get the part about trying to be snappy and readable. We also understand that when you have to produce daily copy, you’ll occasionally come up with a clunker idea. Yeah, we get all that, but this is stupid contest.

As general rule, gleefully making fun of others mistakes isn’t a good idea.

But let’s not waste it. Let’s try to find a thoughtful angle here. In this regard, consider the premise of this particular contest, which is that there’s “rampant political corruption” in Albany.

Seriously now, is that true? Is corruption rampant in Albany?

It sure seems like a lot of politicians have got in trouble with the law recently. But take a huge step back and ask yourself two important sets of questions:

First, what’s the nature of the corruption that supposedly is so rampant? Who’s doing what? Is there a common thread to it? Is it really a systemic problem?

Second, if the corruption is indeed rampant, we have to ask: Compared to what? To other states? To other countries?

As for the first part regarding the nature of the corruption, we think – brace yourself – that a lot what we are seeing recently is penny ante bullshit. We’re not kidding. The Gabby Rosa thing was bullshit. The Tom Libous thing sure looks like bullshit. Even the Nelson Castro affair, a few years back, was exceedingly lame. You wear a wire for two years in Albany – and all you get is one hare-brained bribery attempt for 10k?

Now we’re definitely not saying everything is fine in Albany. We thought it was ridiculous that Joe Bruno walked free after the way he milked the system. We’re appalled at the way he’s running around now claiming complete and total vindication.

The problem today is that every time a lawmaker runs into trouble of any kind – media outlets will run the growing tally of transgressions and say: How awful. For shame.

We saw one of these articles recently. It included a graphic that had pictures of all the supposed bad actors. It lumped former State Sen. John Sabini in with Assemblyman Brian McLaughlin. But Sabini had a DWI, while McLaughlin pleaded guilty to racketeering and embezzlement. The two offenses obviously aren’t comparable.

In fact, many of the Albany controversies involving lawmakers and other elected officials that grab the headlines aren’t “corruption” at all. Was Spitzer on the take?

Now consider the bigger question: Is corruption in New York really that bad when compared to other states? That’s the key question in our minds. If corruption is indeed rampant in New York then we’ll have more of it than other states, right?

Guess what? Indiana University did a study recently. It ranked the states according to incidents of true political corruption over the last two decades.

Before we give you the results, keep in mind New Yorker’s collective fixation with state rankings. Pols, columnists, commentators and regular folks are always citing New York as being ranked number one for this or that. Usually it’s a negative. We’re number one in taxes. We’re number one in job losses. Number one in brain drain, etc.

Given this fixation, we should really care about where we rank in corruption, right? And because we’re soooo corrupt we should be leading the pack, right? We should be in the top ten for sure, right?

But guess what? According to Indiana University we’re not number one at all. We’re not at or even near the top of the list. We rank 36th.

How can that be? If corruption is such a problem in New York, how come we rank near the bottom in terms of the number of corrupt public officials being nabbed.

Is it because we have lax law enforcement? No, we have the vaunted U.S. Southern District, as well as the Manhattan DA’s office, which in the legal world are regarded as premier law enforcement offices.

Our point – to be bludgeoning blunt about it – is that we’re all on a collective jag here, especially the media, in thinking that New York is such a corrupt place.

The truth is that corruption isn’t the problem we think it is. For sure, it’s a concern. We ought to have new rules regarding lawmakers outside income and business activities. We ought to tighten campaign finance laws. And while we’re at it – we also need to think carefully about the investigators and prosecutors. The people doing the investigations (or not doing them) need scrutiny, as well. More on this later.

For now, read this study and be reassured the state is not a cesspool: The Impact of Public Officials Corruption on the Size and Allocation of State Spending, by C. Liu and John L. Mikesell.

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