Hobson’s Choice in Public Service

By Jason Bowns

As a snowstorm opens its wings to envelop the Northeast, a political storm surges in Albany.

bowns jan 1
Source: Albany County Convention and Visitors Bureau

There, New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver is under fire with calls for his resignation from the leadership post he’s held for more than 20 years.

His New York State Senate counterpart, Joseph Bruno, endured a similar fate beginning with his indictment for honest services fraud Jan. 23, 2009 – 15 days after then Governor David Patterson delivered the State of State address. On Jan. 21, 2015, Governor Andrew Cuomo delivered the State of State address; that same day U.S. Judge Frank Maas signed the criminal complaint against Speaker Silver. He was arrested the following day.

The criminal complaint alleges that Speaker Silver used his official position for financial gain through a number of schemes and then concealed and sought to thwart efforts to hold him accountable, including a professed lack of cooperation with the Moreland Commission.

The public reaction has been varied. Governor Cuomo noted, “It’s a bad reflection on government and it adds to the negativity.” Others have lauded the efforts of U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara to hold officials accountable. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said, “I’ve always known Shelly Silver to be a man of integrity, and he certainly has due process rights and I think that we should let the process play out here.”

Bharara said that the political culture of Albany fosters an environment where schemes of which Silver is accused, can exist, comparing the “three men in a room” to the Roman triumvirate.

Yet reputable public servants have served in and survived the New York State Legislature. One example is Daniel Feldman, an associate professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He is a former New York State Assemblyman and served in Albany for 18 years.

Bowns jan 2
Source: The Crime Report

Having had the opportunity to attend classes taught by Professor Feldman, I can say firsthand that I’ve found him to be a model public servant in every interaction – honest, forthright, wise, independent and well-principled. These traits served him well in Albany, where he authored over 140 state laws including Megan’s Law and the Organized Crime Control Act.

But there are others who take a different approach to legislating. I’ll always remember one poignant interaction with a then-serving New York State Assemblymember. This person described serving in the Assembly as a “part-time job” because their regular, full-time job was a busy law practice.

That comment stung, because from my vantage point, an elected official isn’t only there to vote on bills and to engage in politics. There’s also the constituent work, which does not end until the official leaves office. There’s also a sense of responsibility, which should be omnipresent.

We must also remember that Sheldon Silver has only been accused of these crimes. There is no substantive reply to the allegations from his corner. He has not had his day in court.

Recall the five-year saga involving New York State Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno. He was accused of accepting millions of dollars in consulting fees framed as honest services fraud. Bruno resigned from the Senate and was ultimately indicted, convicted, retried and acquitted in May 2014.

Afterward, Bruno opined, “I cannot describe to anybody what it feels like to have the federal government day and night on your mind…That their mission is to put you in prison. That’s hard to go to bed at night and that’s pretty hard when you get up in the morning. But the system works.” Will Speaker Silver’s path follow a similar course?  Will the system work for him?

As much as the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act became a sword to prosecute organized crime in the 1980s, the federal honest services fraud statute is a potent federal tool to prosecute public servants, although its scope is still being defined.

Whatever the terminus of Sheldon Silver’s long road, it’s no longer a public service road less traveled. Is this due to overzealous federal prosecutors, a media culture which thrives on the latest political scandal or does it evince a hornet’s nest of government corruption?

Sheldon Silver’s storm should not dissuade us. We must trudge onward. We must remember that public service is a full-time job; its seat of power is in our hearts and minds.

Corruption may sell in the media and the courts, but government in Albany and elsewhere is not all corrupt. There are always Daniel Feldmans, Steve LaTourettes, Ella T. Grassos and Theodore Roosevelts out there. Don’t only look for the bad and the ugly. Look for them, too.

Bowns jan 3
Source: Ghosts of DC 

As British author Roald Dahl wrote in one of his final books, “And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.”

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