The Sheldon Silver of a previous age, George Washington Plunkitt, summed up his long career in Democratic Party machine politics thus:
“Everybody is talkin’ these days about Tammany [Hall] men growin’ rich on graft, but nobody thinks of drawin’ the distinction between honest graft and dishonest graft. There’s all the difference in the world between the two. Yes, many of our men have grown rich in politics. I have myself. I’ve made a big fortune out of the game, and I’m gettin’ richer every day, but I’ve not gone in for dishonest graft — blackmailing’ gamblers, saloonkeepers, disorderly people, etc. — and neither has any of the men who have made big fortunes in politics.”
No, Plunkitt said, “There’s an honest graft, and I’m an example of how it works. I might sum up the whole thing by saying’: ‘I seen my opportunities and I took ’em.’ ” For instance, if he knew the city was determined to buy a parcel of land, he’d buy it first and pocket a huge profit.
Today we laugh to think there could possibly have been such openly dishonest figures calling themselves “public servants.” But as Michael Kinsley once said, what’s shocking about Washington, DC, politics is not the stuff that’s illegal but the stuff that’s legal.
That’s true 10 times over in Albany. Why? Because Washington gets people talking. Washington gets people arguing. Washington gets people excited, even passionate. People naturally pay attention to things they find interesting, so Washington at least faces a high level of public scrutiny.We take the corruption for granted, and always have.
But Albany? Albany is boring. That’s how Albany likes it.
You know who Washington’s new speaker of the House is. Do you know who the speaker of the New York state Assembly is, since Shelly Silver was forced to resign last winter amid corruption charges? I didn’t either. I had to look it up. (It’s Carl Heastie of The Bronx.)
You can name dozens, maybe hundreds, of reporters who cover DC politics. But apart from the Post’s legendary Fredric U. Dicker, how many Albany reporters are celebrities? We just don’t pay attention to Albany — and the $140 billion it takes out of our wallets and spends every year.
At Silver’s trial in lower Manhattan this week, perhaps the least interesting witness was a personable budget gnome named Victor Franco. As far as I can tell, Franco is an upstanding citizen.
I take it that he’s honest and does his job in accordance with the law. But as deputy budget director, he was involved in pushing through huge transactions involving pots of money whose actual destination was never revealed to the public. There was no competitive-review process for these grants. There was no debate about whether the beneficiaries were deserving.
From 2000 to 2006, through something called the Health Care Reform Act — hey, who’s against health-care reform? — there was an annual treasure chest of $8.5 million in grants that Sheldon Silver, and Sheldon Silver only, could spend as he pleased, as long as the recipient was in the health-care field. (Or game. Or racket.)
If the money by some fiscal miracle wound up not getting spent in the calendar year for which it was appropriated, it just sat there until Silver got around to spending it.
When Silver’s acquaintance Dr. Robert Taub started dropping unmissable hints that he wanted Silver to fund his mesothelioma research in exchange for Taub referring terminally ill asbestos victims to Silver’s law firm so Silver could reap millions in finders’ fees, Silver went back to unspent money from one of the $8.5 million annual Health Care Reform Act stashes and started doling it out. Franco was one of the guys in the middle who did the paperwork.
Unless you’re reading this in a corner office or a penthouse terrace, eight and a half million dollars is more tax revenue than you will ever contribute to the state of New York in your life. And yet eight and a half million dollars is also such a piddling amount of money in a $140 billion budget that no one cares.
A revealing detail in the process of jury selection before Silver’s trial Monday was a question Judge Valerie Caproni posed to Manhattan residents: Do you know whether Mr. Silver represents your district? At least while I was present, not a single one of these New Yorkers answered yes. Silver held immense power in Albany as Assembly speaker for two decades — and yet the average person doesn’t even know what his district is (it’s the Lower East Side).
“Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants, electric light the most efficient policeman,” future Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis wrote in 1914. But when Albany news comes up, we flip the channel or turn the page.
We take the corruption for granted, and always have. Shame on us. Every time Albany announces its annual budget, you should be studying it as carefully as you’d study your ex’s face at the class reunion.
New York Post: Kyle Smith 11/11/15