by Joe Sexton, ProPublica.
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.