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Malcolm Smith scandal reverberates through state's political circles

The scandal around state Sen. Malcolm Smith is continuing to have repercussions in both political parties and in every level of the state’s government. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, on an upstate tour to promote the recently passed state budget, has been dogged by questions about the scandal instead.

Meanwhile, government reform groups say New York’s politicians need to enact public financing of campaigns, after Smith was arrested for allegedly trying to bribe his way onto the ballot for the New York City mayor’s race.

The government reform groups say the latest scandal involving Smith’s alleged bribes to GOP officials to try to obtain permission to run on the Republican Mayoral ballot once again emphasizes the need to get money out of politics.

They’re seeking a statewide public campaign financing system.  

Citizen Action’s Karen Scharff says public campaign financing can’t completely eliminate corruption, after all New York City already has a public campaign finance system. But she says it could change the mind set and make the pay to play less pervasive.

“You can’t run for Senate or Assembly and be taken seriously unless you can raise hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Scharff said. “So, the people who decide to run are the people who feel comfortable  and have those relationships and can raise those big dollars.”

Bill Mahoney, with the New York Public Interest Research Group points out that even though the case involves the New York City mayoral ballot, it’s still fundamentally a state government based example of alleged corruption. He says Smith is accused of steering a $500 million road project out of the state budget to benefit a Rockland County developer as part of the deal.

“This was a sate senator who was seeking money from somebody who was ultimately going to be getting state grants,” Mahoney said.

Smith’s scandal adds to the long list of over two dozen state lawmakers in the past decade who’ve been arrested, jailed, or reprimanded for bad behavior, says the League of Women Voter’s Barbara Bartoletti.

“You could probably have a quorum in some of the upstate correctional institutions,” she quipped.

Bartoletti says the second part of any campaign finance reform plan is proper enforcement. She points out that the State Board of Elections, which is charged with enforcing present campaign finance laws, currently has no investigator on staff.

New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg says the corruption scandal makes the case for non-partisan mayoral elections. The government reform groups were not yet ready to sign on to that.

Cuomo has said creating a public campaign financing system will be a priority for the second half of the legislative session, which begins April 15. The governor has said he’d prefer to set up a separate source of funding, not from taxpayer money, to pay for a matching grant system.

Bill Mahoney, with the New York Public Interest Research Group, says that’s a good plan, but points out there is enough money in the state budget to cover the costs.

“I don’t think anybody can look at the budget that passed last week and say there really wasn’t $50 million of pork in there and waste,” he said.

Cuomo was in Oswego as part of a post budget victory tour of the state. He was asked whether the Smith scandal has overshadowed the governor’s message that he’s made government in Albany more functional.

“The government is working better,” said Cuomo. “Do you have acts of venality and possible corruption and illegality? Yes you do. And this current situation is very, very troubling.”   

Cuomo says when he was attorney general, he conducted probes that made examples out of corrupt politicians, including another former state Senate leader, Pedro Espada, and  former state Comptroller Alan Hevesi. Hevesi was recently released from prison; Espada faces jail time.

But Cuomo says laws and prosecutions can’t prevent  some politicians from doing “stupid things.”

Smith himself has been a past sponsor of public campaign financing legislation. The Buffalo News reports that the name of the bill was “Clean Money, Clean Elections.”

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.