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28th March

First Published in The New York Sun, March 28, 2008

By Andrew Wolf

Good government types are quick to limit and monitor contributions to political campaigns. After all, we don’t want Assemblyman Jones to be unduly influenced by the $250 contribution sent by Citizen Smith who works for a bank that just happens to have legislation pending before some committee on which the good Assemblyman serves.

The problem is that the real corruption occurs not when the money comes in, but rather when it goes out. Scrutiny of this may be the sea change that will come out of the remarkable events in Albany these past three weeks.

Now I certainly won’t discount the fact that those who have an agenda will want to influence Assemblyman Jones through a campaign contribution, but presumably there is an interest on the other side of the equation that should be equally interested in exerting influence. Since campaign contributions are a form of free speech, there shouldn’t be a problem.

The place that this all breaks down is that more likely than not, Assemblyman Jones will not face any real opposition when she runs for reelection. The outcomes of elections are largely predetermined every 10 years when legislators sit down and draw district lines designed to protect incumbents regardless of party affiliation.

Yet the assemblyman continues to raise money despite the absence of a competitive race. How this is spent is another matter.

When a pile of money sits in the bank, there is plenty of temptation to use it, or redefine what constitutes a legitimate political expense.

This is what has gotten our new governor, David Paterson, into hot water during his first days in office. And because in the post-Spitzer era the level of scrutiny is suddenly so high, and the climate so unforgiving, this puts him at real risk.

I can’t recall the last time Mr. Paterson faced a real opponent in his former state senate district in Harlem, where he was a fixture for two decades. All of the cash he raised served no real purpose related to keeping him in office.

So the money was there to pay for the occasional motel room at the romantic Days Inn, or a few hundred dollars to “reimburse” a girlfriend for “work” done in the campaign. This kind of expenditure and even more questionable ones rarely got any scrutiny up until now.

But after the exploits of Client 9, legions of reporters are now combing through every nickel spent by Mr. Paterson’s committees, attesting to a new awareness that the real corruption comes when the money is spent rather than when it is collected.

In a political system rigged to be noncompetitive, few, up until now, bothered to complain. And some prosecutors avoided confronting this thorny issue, when it involved their political allies.

Despite the well-known cases of corruption among politicos in Bronx County, it fell to the district attorney of New York County, Robert Morgenthau, and federal prosecutors to gain convictions of Bronx legislators Guy Velella and Gloria Davis and an indictment of Bronx Senator Efrain Gonzalez.

Why not the Bronx District Attorney’s office? The only political case I can recall being brought by the Bronx District Attorney in recent years was against Pedro Espada, Jr., an opponent of the Bronx Democratic machine. Mr. Espada was charged with Medicaid fraud in the health centers he runs.

The case against Mr. Espada, who was acquitted, was initiated by the Bronx D.A. because Mr. Espada’s 1998 nominating petitions were invalidated for fraud, a common practice that never spurred a criminal probe before.

As Mr. Espada prepared for trial in 2000, nobody, certainly not the cross-endorsed Bronx D.A., went after Bronx Republicans, though there were widely circulated reports of forgeries in the effort to put Governor George W. Bush on the primary ballot for president in the 16th Congressional District. A double standard?

In 2003, the Village Voice ran an expose that suggested that the expenditures for the 2001 campaigns of both mayoral hopeful Fernando Ferrer and Adolfo Carrion, then running for Bronx president, were disproportionately being diverted to firms controlled by Bronx County Democratic boss Roberto Ramirez in questionable ways.

The Voice suggested the matter deserved an investigation, one that never occurred, despite the fact that the campaign funds, an amount in seven figures, included public matching funds - taxpayer money - dispersed to candidates in municipal elections.

This is why the outflow of cash deserves as much or more attention than the contributions. If used to thank paramours or rent hotel rooms for trysts, campaign expenditures can be more troublesome and have a greater potential for corruption than contributions coming in.

If these dollars are being converted into personal slush funds for politicos, perhaps that is the area reformers need to address, better than to further diminish the rights of those who want to exercise free speech by contributing to politicians they favor, unless, of course, they inadvertently want to end up paying for that room at the Days Inn.

© 2008 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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