How the mighty (corrupt) have fallen

Is this the best you got? Malcolm Smith is allegedly at the center of a New York corruption scandal. Photo: NYS Senate

While traveling this week in Costa Rica, I’ve been following the unfolding narrative of New York’s own banana republic-style politics.

The allegations are sweeping and, let’s be frank, juicy.

Former senate majority leader Malcolm Smith, a Democrat from Queens is said to have helped funnel roughly $100,000 to various Republicans in an effort to buy the GOP line on the New York City mayoral ballot.

Real estate developers are involved.  The FBI had an undercover agent and an informant working the beat.

The FBI even went for the pop-culture reference in describing the affair, calling it “Malcolm in the middle.”

Now before I get to the nut of my reaction to all this, some boilerplate stuff.

First, Smith and his fellow travelers are innocent until proven guilty.  Second, public corruption is serious in New York.

That said, it’s impossible to avoid the sense that Albany and New York City wheel-greasers have lost a lot of their storied mojo.  I mean, New York is a state that helped invent corruption.

Democrat Boss Tweed ran Tammany Hall for decades in the 1800s and some estimates of his total take run as high as $200 million.

“It’s hard not to admire the skill behind Tweed’s system,” wrote William Tweed biographer Ken Ackerman.

“The Tweed ring at its height was an engineering marvel, strong and solid, strategically deployed to control key power points: the courts, the legislature, the treasury and the ballot box. Its frauds had a grandeur of scale and an elegance of structure: money-laundering, profit sharing and organization.”

As recently as half a decade ago, Republican deal-maker Joe Bruno was accused of using his majority leader post to funnel more than $3 million to his private enterprises — a Federal rap he managed to beat.

Which brings us back to Malcolm Smith, a guy whose tenure as head of the state Senate will be remembered not for corruption but for sheer, muddled incompetence.

This is a guy who parlayed electoral victories statewide — not to mention a chance to gerrymander the state Senate into Democratic hands for a generation — into chaos and humiliation.

This is the guy Republican operatives and real estate wheeler-dealers (allegedly) chose to get into bed with?  A guy whose scheme was to buy himself the mayor’s office — as a Republican?

Sad.

It’s also kind of pathetic the scale of corruption at play here.  If the Federal charges turn out to be true, these guys and gals sold their reputations, their livelihoods and perhaps their freedom for paltry wads of cash.

Boss Tweed would be embarrassed.

But in all seriousness, there are some silver linings here.  These indictments suggest that anti-corruption efforts are working, derailing alleged conspiracies before they metastasize.

They also suggest that the smart money is staying away from these schemes — especially when a guy like Malcolm Smith is purportedly in the middle.

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4 Responses to “How the mighty (corrupt) have fallen”

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  1. I remember a few years ago, a delegation from the parliament of Ghana came to Albany on an “educational” trip to learn about how democracy works. Given that Ghana is an actual democracy with less corruption, Lord knows what they could possibly have learned from the excursion.

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  2. Ken Hall says:

    The “silver lining”, of anti-corruption efforts, Brian Mann envisions because of the, likely ephemeral, indictment of a handful of relative minor players over truly insignificant quantities of, potential bribery, cash leaves me far from elated. As a geriatric observer of the greed, stupidity, and far from exceptional character of the human species, in general, and the psychotic/delusional character of the “leaders” of homo sapiens in particular, these indictments are simply more of the same embellished eye wash machinations the “real” power behind the “throne” puppet masters have employed to keep the minions in line since the human invention of agriculture enabled the formation of towns, cities, states, countries and all of the good deals that are coming home to roost on our only home, spaceship Earth.

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  3. myown says:

    The other news was the indictment of NYS Assemblyman Eric Stevenson for accepting cash in return for supporting a bill that would have benefited the business of those making the bribe. Excuse me, but how is that significantly different than if the individuals/business had made a contribution by check for a campaign contribution or to a PAC associated with the Assemblyman. Yes the cash is easier for the Assemblyman to use personally, but it is not that hard to siphon off campaign funds to a relative with a no-show job for essentially the same results.

    Our Democracy continues to be a pay to play game. On the state and federal levels it is far too common that legislation proposed will benefit the business of a campaign supporter rather than for the common good. From tax breaks to monopolistic favors the game is rigged in favor of the rich and powerful. That’s the way it has always been. Although the corruption was much worse in the past we still need changes, such as overturning Citizens United that allows unlimited corporate influence on elections, and finding ways to finance elections that eliminates the corrupting game of favorable legislation in return for campaign contributions.

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  4. Bob Falesch says:

    I’m consoled somewhat by your reminder that anti-corruption efforts are working and fending off metastasis. Too bad it has to even get this far. How can we reward the “anti-corrupters”? We reward the politicians through reelection. Oh, that’s right, federal prosecutors are appointed by politicians and are confirmed by politicians. Is it just our blind luck we get a good one once in a while?

    Great article. Brian Mann, the Mike Royco of the North Country. I spent most of my life within the domain of the “Chicago Democrat Machine” — talk about self-preservation :–)

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