New York Lawmakers To Confront Recent Spate Of Corruption

In the wake of two high profile corruption arrests this month, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is proposing laws that are supposed to make it easier to catch corrupt politicians. Good government groups say it might also help to take some of the money out of politics in New York — and other states too.

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When New York lawmakers return to the state capital next week, they will confront a familiar subject: corruption. Two legislators were arrested this month on bribery charges. Governor Andrew Cuomo wants to pass laws that he says will make it easier to catch and prosecute corrupt politicians, but government reformers say broader changes are needed, as NPR's Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Until recently, Nelson Castro seemed like any other Democrat in the New York State Assembly.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: New York state Assemblyman Nelson Castro is improving our community.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I support Nelson Castro.

ROSE: Castro was elected to represent part of the Bronx in 2008 and won re-election twice, but for most of his time, Castro was keeping some big secrets. For one thing, he was under indictment for allegedly lying to the Board of Elections. By the time that indictment was unsealed on Wednesday, Castro had already resigned from the assembly. He read a brief statement to reporters outside the courthouse.

NELSON CASTRO: I intend to take full responsibility of these actions and continue to do what I can to make it right.

ROSE: Castro had another secret too. For the last four years, he worked with the United States Attorney's Office to secretly record conversations with lawmakers and party officials. Those recordings have already brought down one lawmaker, Assemblyman Eric Stevenson, who was arrested for allegedly accepting more than $20,000 in bribes to help a local business. Here's U.S. attorney Preet Bharara announcing the charges last week.

PREET BHARARA: If you are a corrupt official in New York, you have to worry that one of your colleagues is working with us, and that it will be that much harder to escape punishment.

ROSE: It was the second time in three days that Bharara had announced corruption charges against a sitting New York lawmaker.

BHARARA: What has been perhaps the most disheartening is the deafening silence of the many individuals who over the course of this investigation and other investigations saw something and said nothing.

ROSE: This week, Governor Andrew Cuomo responded with a package of bills that would give more power to local authorities to prosecute corruption cases, and it would also make it a crime for public officials to know about a bribery attempt and fail to report it.

GOVERNOR ANDREW CUOMO: And I want to strike while the iron is hot. You know, crisis is a terrible thing to waste, and we're going to have a very robust package of reforms and work very hard to get them passed.

RICHARD DADEY: It's great to have stronger penalties, but what we really also need is stronger enforcement of already existing law.

ROSE: Richard Dadey is executive director of Citizens Union, a government reform group in New York City. He says the existing state watchdogs, including the Ethics Commission and the Board of Elections, lack the power and resources needed to police Albany.

DADEY: We now are counting 21 elected officials, state legislators who actually have left office because of misconduct or criminal charges since 1999, with four more on the docket having been arrested but not yet left.

ROSE: You might think that New York has the biggest corruption problem in the country, but not according to The Center for Public Integrity. Last year, the Washington nonprofit conducted a survey of all 50 state governments and ranked them based on the risk of corruption. Gordon Witkin is the center's managing editor.

GORDON WITKIN: New York finished 37th out of 50, with an overall grade of D.

ROSE: Meaning there were 13 states that actually finished lower than New York. Witkin says some states that have had major corruption scandals in recent years, including New Jersey, actually did better.

WITKIN: Which surprised a lot of folks, including ourselves. The state there had passed some really tough oversight provisions that made it a leader in terms of the state budgeting process and the strength of its state ethics commission.

ROSE: Government reformers are hoping the same thing will eventually happen in New York. But in the short run, they're wondering whose door the FBI will knock on next. Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.

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