Shelly Silver and Dean Skelos broke the law, but when it comes to politicians, New York’s got a far bigger problem: corruption that’s perfectly legal.
“I seen my opportunities, and I took ’em.” Tammany boss George Washington Plunkitt used that famous, comically frank excuse to explain the “honest graft” that made him rich. Indeed, he took pride in his corruption, because he distinguished it from “dishonest graft.”
In 1870, Plunkitt held four offices — assemblyman, alderman, police magistrate and county supervisor — and pulled down three salaries. His “honest graft,” was based on his ability to “see an opportunity” — say, buying up land where, unknown to the public, a park would later be built, then selling it at a handsome profit.
Silver and Skelos committed flat-out crimes. But what about the “honest graft,” the kind of corruption that takes a toll on millions who don’t even realize it — all while breaking no laws? It’s as fetid as the “dishonest” kind. New York’s pols trade legislative favors, steer contracts, set wages and grant tax breaks.
But democracy itself encourages quid pro quo deals — many that are perfectly legal, and others that may not be, but that are hard to prove otherwise. Prosecutors are lucky indeed to find evidence as clear-cut as in the Skelos and Silver cases.
A candidate, for instance, might promise pay hikes for public workers or tax breaks for select groups, knowing he’ll get their political support. That’s totally legal. A businessman might buy ads hawking a candidate who vows to build roads. That’s OK, too, even if the roads provide a particular benefit to the man’s trucking business.
It boils down to this: Power corrupts, as the saying goes. So limit an official’s power, and you can probably limit a good deal of corruption.
There’s more: Steps to end the lifetime tenures of incumbents would help. And, of course, an engaged electorate is crucial.