Power, Money & The New York City Council
By MICHAEL SCHENKLER
There are times I sit down to write my column and I wind up shaking my head.
I believe in the system. I am a political junkie and think our democracy is as good as it gets. I love this country, state and city. I love politics. I am a student of government and am amazed at how soured I am about the abysmal functioning of the legislative bodies at all levels of government we live with today.
Money is the root of all evil. – New Testament, circa 100 A.D.
Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. – Lord Acton, 1887
I have spent years railing against the corruption in Albany. I take some solace that I called the New York State legislature the 50th best in the nation several years before the NYU School of Law, Brennan Center For Justice called them the most dysfunctional legislature in the nation. I take no pride in the achievements of the legislature or lack thereof.
The body has clearly not come close to considering the best interest of the people when doing its thing. It is self serving, undemocratic, tyrannical and corrupt. And those are the nice descriptors. Those who have stayed in Albany year after year raising their hands to reelect leadership which has not only failed the people but put politics and self interest way ahead of the interests of the people and New York State, do not deserve your respect, support or vote.
Yes, politics has ruined the process I believe in.
Yes, money has corrupted the process I believe in.
Albany is broken – very, very broken.
They pass phony budgets late. They know they don’t have the revenue to justify the expense. They allow the majority members of each house to abuse the minority members with no consideration of the districts and people they serve. This is an indictment of both parties.
Member items or discretionary funds or earmarks or whatever you call them represent taxpayer’s money which is used to reward members, get votes in marginal districts, pay off friends and contributors and and and.
I have railed against Albany for many, many years.
Now, it’s the Council
I have been somewhat of a supporter of the New York City Council since term limits brought into office a majority of new and enthusiastic councilmembers as a result of a law enacted by the people over the objections of the sitting councilmembers. The new Council came in and impressed us with their energy, commitment and skill. The sky did not fall as term limit foes predicted. In fact, the performance of the Council was refreshing and new. I cheered it.
That positive change occurred as we entered the new millennium.
I guess it hasn’t taken long.
They’ve raised their salaries, increased their member items, paid their family members, abused our money and now it is revealed that the Speaker made up names of phony organizations and put them in the budget in order to hide money as her personal slush fund to use later in the year.
No, Christine Quinn is not being accused of stealing taxpayer funds. She did however knowingly approve budget entries that were fraudulent and later used the money, as she saw fit to dole out to members, organizations and districts based only on her own whim in clear violation of the law and budgetary process.
And friends, it appears the Council is going to do nothing about it. One lone voice of Councilman Charles Barron – the permanent naysayer – has called for the Speaker’s removal. The rest of the group sits by silently adhering to the standards of the worst politics has to offer.
Last week we condemned the Council for failing the “Albany Stink Test.”
This week we challenge it to rise above partisanship and excuses and remove the Speaker and make a clear statement for honesty, transparency in government and establish a new set of rules for the funding of member items.
All funding of Council items must be competitive with a standard application form sworn to by the organization, demonstrating the services provided by the organization, the number of people served, the use of the funds requested, and the additional services that will be provided by those funds. Any Councilmember requesting member item funding must attest to the fact that they examined the information on the application, reviewed the organization and its services provided and has no conflict of interest with recommending funding to the group.
Now those standards came to me in 5 minutes on a Sunday afternoon. Imagine what the professionals could put in place to protect taxpayer money from being abused by the Council.
Nothing here is to suggest that there are not fine hard-working dedicated Councilmembers. This is merely an expression of my personal fear that the Council is moving in the direction of the State legislature where pork and politics and self interest come before good government.
This week, we spoke to many in the Council and at other high levels of City Government who agree with us but would only talk on background and not for attribution — call it fear or politics as usual.
We challenge all people of good will (councilmembers this includes some of you) to come forward and speak out against the present failing and embarrassing situation in the City Council, demand change, remove the Speaker, and prevent politics, power and money from turning the New York City Council into a clone of the cesspool we have in Albany.
Geesh, what’s going on is just no good.
Speak up before it’s too late.
New Reports on Slushwater
The scandal over misuse of public funds by politicians continues to grow.
Last week, on page A1 of the Times, was a major article: “In Council Campaigns, Relatives on the Payroll.” It is the most exhaustive study of the councilmembers’ hiring practices for their campaigns that has ever appeared.
The Times story describes over a dozen cases where councilmembers hired relatives to work in their campaigns, rented space in their homes for their offices, or engaged in other acts of self-dealing. In some cases, the councilmember was headed for an overwhelming victory in a sham campaign, so the expenditures were primarily a vehicle to receive public funds for personal gain.
The issue is made more complex by the fact that, in other cases, some of these expenditures where, in fact, legitimate and necessary. I am personally aware of the services performed by Richard O’Malley, stepson of Councilman James Gennaro. Peter Vallone, Jr. paid his brother Paul, an attorney, $7,500 to act as campaign treasurer, a complex and arduous task for which lawyers usually charge larger sums. These are honest people.
Other political expenditures are more suspicious. Larry Seabrook paid his brother Oliver, $82,752, although he was elected in his Bronx district by an overwhelming margin against a Republican candidate who conducted no campaign.
The Campaign Finance Board is bedeviled by spurious claims. They are fully aware of the problem of runaway elections, for example, when there is no actual general election contest in an overwhelmingly Democratic district. They say the law limits what they can do about it. Public financing has a place in real contests between genuine contenders, with the money honestly spent. It should not be a siphon for unemployed relatives in practically uncontested elections.
How to keep the system honest is a question that has not yet been solved.
We call your attention here to more reports on the burgeoning scandal, which still lacks a prefix to -gate. Slush is a good word to build on, but it does not fit with-gate because the combination lacks meaning. How about Slushwater, as in WhiteWater or WaterGate? Any suggestions?
Here are some of last week’s stories over a two day period with which indicate the spreading stain:
Post, Apr 24, “Slushbusters Freeze Pol’s Cool Million.” The pol is Bronx Council memberLarry Seabrook. Its lede: The city has frozen nearly $1 million in funds that a Bronx city councilman sought for an obscure non-profit group conveniently located right across the hall from his own office.
Sun, April 24, “council using public funds for slush fund defense:” The City Council is negotiating with an outside law firm to represent council employees in connection with a probe into the council’s finances, prompting an outcry from at least one council member.” Tony Avella, a mayoral candidate, said the city should not pay for lawyers to defend a public official or employee who broke the law.
Post, Apr 25, editorial, “A Job for Legal Aid.” “Little more than a week after U.S. Attorney Michael Garcia busted two City Council aides for embezzling some $145,000 in “member-item” cash bound for non-profit groups, New Yorkers are starting to get a good idea of just how wide and deep the scandal may run.
“It’s not a pretty picture — especially since, for the time being anyway, they’ll be the ones footing the council’s growing-like-a-weed-patch legal bills.”
Post, Apr 25, “Slush-$$ Cover Story Crumbles:” “The woman at the helm of three non-profits whose funding amid a federal probe of City Council slush money claims she provides vital services for a senior center in her Bronx neighborhood. The problem is, the senior center says it has never had any contact with her.”
We conclude with a non-blast from the past: Sun, Apr 25, “As Scandal Grows At Council,” Miller stays out of sight: “As fallout from the City Council slush fund scam widens and threatens to damage the political career of Speaker Christine Quinn, a key figure in the budget scandal has vanished from the scene: Gifford Miller, the former speaker of the council.
“Although Council documents show that phantom groups first appeared in the final budget of Mr. Miller’s predecessor, the unusual and possibly illegal accounting maneuver grew by leaps and bounds under Mr. Miller, with nearly $10 million parked behind fake organizations during his four-year term as speaker.”
Not4Publication.com by Dom Nunziato