The Record-Review – The official newspaper of Bedford and Pound Ridge, New York


May 20, 2011

Leibell’s conviction points to first step in ethics reform

It’s hard to believe we actually wrote these words four years ago, when Vincent Leibell was running for re-election to the New York State Senate.

After Mr. Leibell’s sentencing this week in federal court to a term of 21 months for extortion of cash payments from lawyers and for failing to report on his income tax returns tens of thousands of dollars in cash payments from those lawyers, it’s time to learn lessons from all this instead of just watching miscreant after miscreant line up for ill-gotten gains.

‘Mr. Leibell’s experience and proven track record of working with others on both sides of the aisle lead us to endorse him for State Senate.’

During his two decades in the state capital, Mr. Leibell was adept at getting his share of the Senate pie, be it for hospitals, education, the environment or historic sites. Only problem was, in the process he unlawfully extorted cash payments from attorneys doing business in Putnam County who provided legal services to a Putnam County-based nonprofit organization that received millions of dollars in New York State Senate member-item grants — also known as community project grants  — that Mr. Leibell sponsored as a state senator.

Mr. Leibell is just one of many state politicians who got caught — along with such former luminaries as former minority leader Joe Bruno, and influence peddlers State Senator Carl Kruger and Assemblyman William Boyland. Are these men just the low-hanging fruit caught by prosecutors, or is criminal activity the routine sideline for more than a few state legislators?

It is fair to say that Albany’s member-item system is an open invitation for those seeking personal enrichment, a great big pinata for the biggest bullies to grab as much as they can before the others can reach the candy.

Even after Mr. Leibell’s conviction, the system remains unchanged, and so far, attempts at reform have been stymied. Discretionary funds are disproportionately distributed, with the majority party receiving a significantly larger portion of funds.

According to Chris Stazio of Assemblyman Robert Castelli’s office, the majority party controls the way that state funds are distributed. “Right now there are guidelines,” he said on Monday. “But there’s a lot of wiggle room. They’re not strict. There’s no fairness. The majority controls the pots. They basically dole out the member items as they see fit, and the majority obviously gets the larger pool.”

Last year, Assemblyman Castelli co-sponsored a bill sponsored by Democrat Sandy Galef and Democrat Jose Serrano to implement member-item reform that would ensure all legislators, regardless of party or seniority, receive the same amount of state funding. The legislation also states that all members of both the Senate and Assembly must receive equal shares of the member items allocated to each house.

The bill languished in the government operations committee, said Mr. Stazio, and never reached the House floor for a vote. “My feeling is that a bill like this — even though there’s broad support, it would shake up the establishment so much there would have to be a length of time before it could get passed.”

The bill is back this year, but Mr. Stazio said that despite bipartisan support, “it’s in the same place where it was.” He said that despite Assembly Majority Leader Sheldon Silver’s pledge for reform, “I would be surprised if this bill passes this year.”

While Senator Greg Ball of the 40th District did not say if he would vote for Senate bill 7007, he said that he was seeking a “comprehensive plan” that goes beyond member items to “all breaches of public trust.” In presenting the Public Corruption Prevention and Enforcement Act of 2011, Mr. Ball said this week that he seeks a more transparent government that closes the loopholes that have been utilized by people like former Senator Leibell. Among the standards he advocates are strengthening ethics requirements and increasing transparency regarding community project grants.

Legislators would be prohibited from sponsoring or requesting any grants if they themselves, a relative or spouse is a director, officer or trustee of the organization receiving any grant. “Legislators, their spouses and relatives are also banned from having a financial interest in or receiving any financial benefit from a grant,” states the legislation.

No matter which changes are put forward, and which act — or amalgam thereof — it is safe to say that the member-item system is going to be slow to change.

Hats off to Mr. Castelli and to Mr. Ball for addressing these critical issues. Now comes the matter of getting consensus. Let’s hope that they can agree on member-item reform, as well as other important ethics reforms in Albany. 

Until lawmakers adopt significant ethical and structural changes in Albany, we just may be fostering an environment that could create not statesmen in Albany, but a new class of felons.


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