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State lawmakers return to confront scandals

New York state lawmakers returned to work after a two-week spring break. It’s their first meeting since two lawmakers have been charged with bribery in separate corruption scandals.

Senators and Assembly members met for the first time since state Sen. Malcolm Smith was charged with trying to bribe his way onto the Republican New York City mayoral ticket, among other things, and Assemblyman Eric Stevenson was accused of taking thousands of dollars to write legislation to benefit developers of an adult day care center.
Senate Democrats introduced reforms, including public financing of campaigns.  Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins says it’s important to act quickly.

“We are in a crisis,” said Senator Stewart Cousins. “And clearly, we need to respond to it.”

Democrats are the minority faction in the Senate. The chamber is run by a coalition of Republicans and a breakaway Democratic faction.

The leader of the breakaway Democrats, Independent Democratic Conference Leader Jeff Klein said through a spokesman that the proposal does not go far enough. Spokesman Eric Soufer called the ideas “low hanging fruit,” and says the “proposals fall short.”  Last week, Klein introduced, via press release, a more comprehensive plan that would also end the practice of party cross endorsements and close loopholes in the so-called party housekeeping accounts.
Senate Republicans have been cool toward some of the proposals -- including public campaign finance reform -- saying it’s a poor use of the taxpayers money.  

Sen. Smith, one of the lawmakers accused of bribery, was a member of Klein’s Independent Democratic Conference.  Smith, who came to attend the Senate session,  says he understands that he’s been ousted from the break-away Democratic faction, but he intends to continue to serve.
“I’m going to be a member of the chamber and vote on bills that effect my constituents,” Smith said. “And continue to serve them.”

Smith would not discuss the charges against him, saying that he stands by his lawyer’s statements. His attorney has previously said the senator is innocent of the charges. Smith, who in the past has been a sponsor of a public campaign financing bill, also says he continues to back reforms.

“I still believe in ethics reform,” Smith said.

In the Assembly, Speaker Sheldon Silver, says he plans to introduce a new package of reform bills Tuesday.

“It’s something I’ve championed for a long time,” said Silver, who says public financing of campaigns would “take big money out of political campaigns.”

Silver was on his way to a closed-door party conference when he made those remarks. Silver also said the assemblyman accused of bribery, Eric Stevenson, was not expected to be in attendance at the meeting.

“I have recommended to Mr. Stevenson that he won’t be effective as a member,” said Silver. “But he has chosen not to resign, which is his prerogative." Silver says Stevenson will “have his day in court.”
The speaker says, that though there are a “few bad apples” in the Assembly, most of the 213 lawmakers are “honest."

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.