NEW YORK (Reuters) - Candidates for New York state attorney general, who have vowed stern enforcement of white collar crime, are also targeting corrupt politicians — a popular issue with voters.
At least a dozen city and state politicians have been implicated in corruption scandals within the past year. It’s a familiar story for a system that has never fully shed its links to the Tammany Hall political machine that used patronage and corruption to maintain power in the 19th century.
Meanwhile the state capital of Albany has been unable to make progress on important matters such as the state budget, which is almost four months overdue.
“Our government is broken, people have lost faith ... and I think we need to start in Albany by cleaning out the stables,” said Sean Coffey, one of six candidates running for attorney general. Party primary elections are set for September 14 ahead of the general election on November 2.
The office has been used most prominently to crack down on financial crimes, notably by Eliot Spitzer who prosecuted Wall Street abuses and went on to win election as governor before being forced to resign in a prostitution scandal.
Current Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, the frontrunner in this year’s race for governor, followed a similar path.
Candidates in the New York Attorney General race are demanding state legislators disclose their outside income because nearly all hold other jobs. They also want the state Attorney General to have new powers to initiate investigations of legislators.
Such a change would need to be approved by the state legislature, whose members seem unenthusiastic.
“There is nothing more resistant to change than a legislative body and they protect their prerogative,” said Bill Cunningham, a longtime Democratic political strategist. “Whoever becomes the Attorney General will need to cajole and use flattery, because if you use force, they’ll just dig in their heels even more.”
In January, following multiple corruption scandals including the indictment of Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno on charges of collecting $3 million in consulting fees from companies seeking to do business with the state, legislators voted in favor of disclosing outside income.
But Governor David Paterson vetoed the bill, in part because it made an exception for lawyers, who make up a significant percentage of state politicians.
“If the legislature is a part-time arrangement, then for certain the public has a right to know who is paying its legislators to determine to what degree they are subject to outside influence or to what degree they have a conflict of interest,” said Susan Lerner, president of Common Cause New York, a good governance group.
Eighty-three percent of New York state registered voters believe state government is dysfunctional and 76 percent disapprove of the way the legislature is doing its job, according to a recent Quinnipiac Poll.
“If you went back four years ago, everything that’s being said now (by the candidates), was said then,” said Fred Siegel, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute think tank. “The only thing that could have an impact is if a considerable number of incumbents are defeated in November.”
That’s unlikely since under 20 percent of seats have turned over in legislative races in the past decade, according to Citizens Union, a good governance group.
Another way to reduce corruption, experts say, is to eliminate “member items” — called “earmarks” on the federal level — which politicians use to steer money to pet projects.
It is illegal for politicians to funnel money to family members or friends, but the practice continues, in part because the state legislature is largely left to police itself.
“We have deliberately ineffective and vague statutes that allow elected officials and those running for office to feign ignorance,” Lerner said. “And it’s a self-perpetuating system unless the public steps in.”
“We have a state government that’s working for one class of people, which is elected officials,” she said. “And until we the people really push them, really hold their feet to the fire, we’re going to have more of the same.”
Editing by Alan Elsner and Daniel Trotta