Will things ever change?

Just how crooked do you have to be to be a crook in Albany?

That’s the question that a court will start trying to answer this week as Sheldon Silver, once one of the most powerful men in the state, goes back on trial on charges that he made lots of money by trading public favors for private profit.

The facts of the case are not in doubt. They were so blatant that jurors quickly and unanimously found him guilty on all counts only to have their judgment reversed because of rulings in other courts.

The standard for official corruption now is clear. If someone offers a public official a bribe and calls it a bribe and the official accepts the bribe and acknowledges that it is a bribe and if there is a paper trail showing bribe money flowing to the bribee and public money flowing to the briber, then a conviction is likely.

Other than that, it’s easy for corrupt officials to get away with a similar exchange and call it either a business deal or friendship. Both have succeeded in keeping officials out of jail in recent years.

The poster child for this new clarity on bribery is the former governor of Virginia, Bob McDonnell, a Republican. He got a reprieve when the courts decided that what you and I might consider official acts done by a public official in exchange for donations and gifts were not really public acts at all. The latest member of the club is Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, a Democrat, who had the advantage of the rulings in the McDonnell case and was able to get away with calling the flow of funds and favors merely an exchange between friends, one of whom was in office and one who needed official favors.

When it comes to bribery, New York also is bipartisan with Democrat Silver first in line for a retrial, just as he was for the original trial, and Republican Dean Skelos, former leader of the Senate majority, still awaiting his second turn.

The embarrassing spectacle of two of the most powerful people in the state being so easily convicted, following an earlier and just as easy conviction of another Albany powerbroker, Republican Joe Bruno who preceded Skelos in the Senate job and was exonerated in a retrial following the updated, more convoluted reasoning on corruption, has had no effect on state legislators.

If anything, they care less about corruption than they used to. They used to talk about reform and then ignore it. Now, they don’t even talk about it.

If the New York courts follow the examples from the Bruno, McDonnell and Menendez trials, Silver and eventually Skelos will likely be set free and continue to collect their generous state pensions.

So while New Yorkers are not likely to find that they can count on courts to punish corruption, they do have a chance to make a difference in this election year. They can ask those running for re-election not what they think about ethics reform but what they have done about it, then vote for those who have done something.

The Times Herald-Record

By Josh Bovee

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