By Henry Stern
The frustrated plot to seize political power is a staple of both history and fiction. From Guy Fawkes’s gun powder plot in London in 1605 through the party switches and seizure of power in the New York State Senate in 2009, politicians have sought to improve the outcomes of elections through various means.
Just when we thought it was safe to go back in the waters of full contact politics, two new scandals have emerged, one based on an audacious plot to steal the mayoralty in 2013.
The plotters, six highly placed public and party officials, are alleged to have entered into a conspiracy to grant one of their number permission to enter the Republican primary in September. If he won then and in the November general election, City Hall would be in the hands of a band of lowlifes, a situation that reached its depth during the reign of Boss Tweed in 1870.
This year’s situation has comic overtones; the plotters were unable to detect surveillance technology, even after taking measures to ensure it wasn’t being used. The use of undercover informants and recording technology gives a certain advantage to the authorities. The press has been amused by the bizarre scheme, which, they point out, would have been highly unlikely to implement.
The question that occurs to us is: What were these clowns doing in public office in the first place? How could they have believed that their scheme, which involved multiple crimes of bribery by different officials, would possibly have succeeded at capturing the mayoralty?
By anyone’s account, Democratic State Senator Malcolm A. Smith had practically zero chance of winning a Republican mayoral primary. He started scheming to place himself on their ballot months ago, when there was already a crowded Democratic field and the Republicans seemed desperate to show they had any viable contenders.
When it became clear that the Republican Party, after an aggressive courtship, would be unable to convince Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly to run, it seemed plausible that Democratic contenders would seek to distinguish themselves from their better known rivals by appealing to conservative voters on the Republican side.
Another prospective Republican candidate, Tom Allon, did just that, going about it the legal way by changing his party affiliation before the deadline and thereby avoiding the necessity of obtaining a Wilson-Pakula permission slip.
Smith’s plot focused on the general election, where a minority candidate running on the Republican line would probably have implied advantages given the demographic make-up and recent electoral history of our city. But it completely underestimated the difficulty of an Albany Democrat winning the Republican primary.
The GOP field has filled out considerably since all hopes were on Ray Kelly, a highly respected public servant who never wanted to run. Joseph J. Lhota, an able contender, has the Giuliani network to tap into, and is raising funds at a faster pace than his rivals regardless of party. John Catsimatidis is a self-funded billionaire and George T. McDonald is an entrepreneur who worked with the homeless. Senator Smith’s chances of defeating those contenders are nonexistent.
The method in which these conspirators went about their dubious schemes reminds us of a cheap crime novel. Meeting in restaurants, hotels and parked cars, the conniving cohorts sketched out their far-fetched, shady plot while passing an envelope stuffed with cash which they would use to lubricate their shoddily constructed mechanism meant to subvert legal oversight.
As Councilman Dan Halloran put it, on tape, “Money is what greases the wheels – good, bad or indifferent.”
Quotes from the official complaint, transcribed from recorded surveillance, display brazen disregard for legal constraints and outsized egos with delusions of grandeur. While considering the possibility that the GOP leaders might demand additional money to secure their signatures on the coveted Wilson-Pakula permission form, Smith replied, on tape:
“I’d say, if I even give you a nickel more, you’d have to stand on the Empire State Building, and drop every person you endorsed, and hold Malcolm up and say he’s the best thing since sliced bread. Matter of fact, he’s better than sliced bread.”
To us the visual image of their plot is Queens County Republican Vice-Chairman Vincent Tabone patting down an undercover FBI agent to look for a recording device, and then failing to find it. But the fact is that other elected officials and party leaders joined in the plot, and no one reported it until the US Attorney found a participant in another scheme who was willing to bargain for leniency.
Only days later, before we were able to free ourselves from the clutches of the jaws of the bi-partisan debacle gnawing on the public trust, another scandal broke at the week’s end sending US Attorney Preet Bharara once again to the lectern to denounce the culture in Albany.
This time, a Bronx Assemblyman, Eric A. Stevenson, was caught on video taking bribes by contractors for the right to develop adult day care centers and, in a particularly impertinent move, offering to draft legislation to keep all competitors from developing similar centers in the borough for three years. He was snagged by a fellow Assemblyman, Nelson L. Castro, who, it turns out, was cooperating with the Feds for nearly his entire career.
What to do? First, participants in such schemes should be permanently excluded from the political process. Next, their pensions should be forfeited, because they did not provide honest service while they rolled up the benefits. Third, those convicted of such crimes should be exhibited in a public zoo, au naturel, in the company of beasts who will not do them physical harm. Their likenesses should be published on the Internet.
They should be forced to forfeit their assets, including their sheep and cattle. They should be required to do community services until they are too old to work. They should be placed in the stocks or the pillory, in a public place, for a period of time proportionate to the seriousness of their crime. Their attorneys should share in these punishments, as they would collect the fees for the successful defense of these criminals. They should be forbidden from seeking or holding public office or transacting any business with the government.
Some of these devices are being proposed by Governor Cuomo. He needs to apply pressure to the legislature to limit the opportunities for any public official to exploit the system in order to enrich themselves.
Public corruption is cancer eating at the corpus of the state. It corrodes the legitimacy of government and tears at the moral fabric of a society. For a public servant, bribery and extortion are forms of treason and should be treated accordingly.