Less than six weeks into the new year, we’ve already had our fill of political scandals in New York. On January 22nd, now-former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver was arrested on federal charges that he exploited his office to obtain millions of dollars in payoffs. Two weeks later, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara won the conviction of former state Senator Malcolm Smith on bribery charges. One day later, former Rockland County Legislator Frank Sparaco pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges that accused him of filing false nominating petitions in Clarkstown.
This trifecta of political downfalls provides clear and convincing evidence that New York’s government is ailing. In my conversations with local residents, I’m hearing that many voters increasingly feel shut out of the political process, disenfranchised and disengaged. That’s bad news for a government “by the people,” the heart of what it means to be free.
The statistics tell the story. A recent Quinnipiac University poll found that 83 percent of New York voters believe government corruption in New York State is a “very serious” or “somewhat serious” problem. Another recent survey shows that most New Yorkers believe our state is headed in the wrong direction.
Our residents feel this way for a number of reasons, but at least one of them is quite clear. Elected officials increasingly appear to have a closer relationship to well-heeled donors, professional lobbyists and pressure groups than to average citizens. Whether in Albany or in the Legislative Chambers in New City, the quid pro quo culture fueled by special interests is undermining public trust.
It’s no secret that money plays a huge role in American politics. The pay-to-play environment today distorts the political process at the expense of ordinary citizens. Moreover, it feeds gross corruption. Sadly, these truths have the potential to destroy public confidence in state and county government for decades to come.
This greedy culture must change. Rockland County wants it to change. As your county executive, I plan to make ethics reform a central issue with our delegates to the State Capitol. While I don’t agree with Governor Cuomo on every single issue, I fully support his recent actions to tackle an “epidemic” of corruption in the Assembly and Senate. Locally, I expect our campaigning county legislators will fully comply with ethics and campaign finance law; disclosing income figures, client dealings and donor financing.
I encourage you to vocalize support for ethics reform – make it clear to the governor, state lawmakers and your county legislator that reducing corruption at all levels of government should be a top priority. Successful reform starts with the demands of average citizens seeking social justice and the common good – ordinary people finding the political will to implement systemic change and create a better future. At the county level, we vigorously prosecute those who “game the system” by scamming our public benefits programs. Rightfully, we must also target the hubris of corrupt elected officials who seek to “game” the political system.
On November 5, 2013, I won an enormous mandate. I was elected to change our county for the better. This includes “good government” reforms for the betterment of our political system – vital elements to restoring public confidence in the system. Liberty depends on citizen participation, on a government that is of, for, and by the people. Now more than ever, our county – and, our state – can change its ethos if citizens mandate it.