Date: 10/14/2005 10:40:16 PM Eastern Daylight Time
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BULLETIN: We received a call this afternoon from Steve Sigmund, director of communications for Council Speaker Gifford Miller. He told us that the Speaker would not initiate, participate in, or support any effort by the Council in 2005 to revise or repeal the term limits imposed by public referenda. In 2006, Miller will no longer be a Councilmember, and no one can predict what the next Council will try to do to prolong their tenure at $90,000 a year plus lulus.
It is good news, however, that a coup this year is much less likely.
INVITATION: This Sunday, October 16, at 11.15 am, at the Ethical Culture Society, 2 West 64th Street (auditorium), StarQuest will speak on the subject: "Why Politicians Rarely Tell the Truth." Refreshments will be served after the question period which will follow the remarks. Admission is free, and all are invited.
CITATIONS: We are the first blog mentioned yesterday (we weren't in or we would have let you know sooner) in The Politicker, which is written by Ben Smith, an up-and-coming reporter on the New York Observer. His website is among the links we cite every day on our home page, http://www.nycivic.org/. It is remarkable how much information he collects in a short time, while at the same time writing articles for the Observer and caring for his growing family.
SUGGESTION: This is a long one. You can read it at your leisure over the weekend.
The Times Said�
In an editorial Sunday that appeared in its City section, the New York Times raised an issue which has occurred from time to time to a number of people interested in judicial reform.
The editorial, titled "Brooklyn Pal-itics" ran on page 11 of section 14 of the Sunday Times. In that location, it is not likely to have been widely read, and so far we have heard no comment on its contents.
The Times begins: "The conviction of the head of the Brooklyn Democratic party for illegally soliciting campaign funds has not so far produced the salutary results that the public had reason to expect. ...
"There's plenty to be done, beginning with the way the party leaders hand out judgeships like party favors. But the response to Mr. Norman's disgrace has been more business as usual.
"The situation calls out for timely intervention. Yet instead of stepping in, the state's leading Democrats have been silent. Shame on them all. Sheldon Silver, Denny Farrell, Bill Thompson, Eliot Spitzer, Chuck Schumer, Hillary Clinton -- none has interceded on the side of good governance and tried to save the party from itself.
"The corruption that has robbed Brooklyn of the honest politics and the courts it deserves predates Mr. Norman and will not end with him unless there is fundamental change. The cynical deals, power grabs, and money grubbing -- wherever they occur -- are a major blot on New York City's civic life. It has also contributed to the Democrats' inability to recapture City Hall, despite an overwhelming 5-to-1 advantage in registered voters. �
"Reform, if it is to come, requires a blossoming of a genuine reform movement among rank-and-file Democrats. In the meantime, top state and national Democratic leaders the spreading stain."
What Should Major DemocratsDo About the Brooklyn Sewer?
By Henry J. Stern
October 14, 2005
This is the first time the Times has demanded action by eminent Democrats to take their party, in the most populous county in New York, out of the sewer in which it has languished. To the Times' list, we would add the name of a very influential Democrat who is not a candidate for public office and has proven he has enormous interpersonal and political skills, a man who has been called our nation's "first Black President" -- William J. Clinton.
Devoted as he is to fighting AIDS in Africa and tsunamis, hurricanes and other disasters around the world, it would be enormously helpful if he could devote some of his time, skills and influence to cleaning up a filthy mess in his own adopted home state, New York.
The six public officials named by the Times should also take an interest in the fact that, right here in front of their noses, a system exists as corrupt as any in the third world, with justice for sale to judges who feel they have to earn back the money they paid to buy their offices. We know, not every one is a crook; there are honorable judges and decent people. But they are trapped in a system of payoffs and privilege that disgust those for whom equal justice is a lodestar.
Of the Times six, three are involved in the system of rewards and punishments which defines local politics. City Comptroller Bill Thompson got his start under the tutelage of his father and namesake, retired Supreme Court Justice William C. Thompson. Judge Thompson has asserted that he carried $35,000 in cash to Brooklyn Democratic headquarters to secure his nomination. That is not the judge's fault, if he had not done so, he would never have become a judge, and his son would never have become City Comptroller and mayoral candidate in 2009. The power of the system is such that honest and decent people are obliged to play by its rules. We would be pleasantly surprised if Bill Thompson intervened to clean up Brooklyn politics. It could help him in his mayoral race if he did so, but we doubt he has the particular skill-set to deal with the stubbornly corrupt.
Sheldon Silver is the least likely of the six to bring about reform in Brooklyn. A lifelong regular Democrat on the lower east side of Manhattan, Speaker of the Assembly since 1994, Silver has enough ethical issues of his own to keep him from messing with the ethics of others. He did require Roger Green to step down from the Assembly after a plea-bargained misdemeanor conviction, but Green was promptly re-elected, and the proceedings of the Ethics Committee which judged his case have been sealed from public view.
Denny Farrell wears at least four hats. He is a Democratic district leader, New York County leader and Democratic state chairman. He also chairs the Assembly Ways & Means Committee, and is a partner and ally of Speaker Silver. The judicial selection process he has set up in Manhattan is far superior to that in the other four boroughs. One would not expect one county leader to interfere in what would be called the internal affairs of another county. But as Democratic State Chair, he should be concerned over the scandal in his biggest county.
The three statewide figures mentioned by the Times are more visible and more powerful. Brooklyn is Schumer's home county. He was first elected to the assembly in 1974, the year he graduated from law school, as an anti-organization candidate. He has not been close to the county leadership, but he has never, so far as we know, done anything to injure them.
Attorney General Eliot Spitzer has done remarkable work pursuing fraud and injustice in the corporate sector. He has set a standard for the 49 other state attorneys general to follow. He has not been as active in the field of public corruption, largely leaving that to the district attorneys elected in the 62 counties of New York State. He is also a candidate for governor in 2006, and this may not be the time to take on his party's leaders in the county which has more Democrats than any other.
That leaves Senator Hillary Clinton, who has shown she is not afraid of some controversies. She too is up for re-election in 2006, and shortly thereafter is expected to seek higher office. The last thing she wants to be involved in is a corruption scandal at the local level, which will inevitably be depicted as a racist attempt by whites to deprive Brooklyn of the right to select its own leaders and judges.
People who cry race, whether minorities, who are actually majorities in certain areas, or segregationists in the south, try to inflame the public into ignoring issues on the merits. Some people on both sides of the color line seek to use it to enhance their own ambitions, mindless of the havoc they may bring to peaceful co-existing communities. The savagery in Bosnia and Africa, as well as the Middle East, shows what can happen when hate-mongers seize the public stage.
The tradition of paying for judicial nominations is not new, and by no means confined to Brooklyn. No less a figure than the revered former Governor, Herbert H. Lehman, paid so that is older brother, Irving, could be elected to the bench when he was just 33. As the richer sibling (he was a partner in Lehman Brothers), Herbert could well afford this investment in justice. Brother Irving rose to become chief judge of the Court of Appeals (while brother Herbert was governor), Irving died in 1945, his brother was elected United States Senator from New York in 1949 (defeating John Foster Dulles, the future Secretary of State). He served until he retired in January 1957, and was succeeded by Jacob K. Javits, a Republican-Liberal who served twenty-four years, until he became ill.
(For a digression concerning the seven Jewish justices of the Supreme Court of the United States, all appointed since 1916, link here).
The ethical issue involved is whether the payment goes for legitimate expenses of the campaign - printing, posters, direct mail, etc. or whether it goes into the pockets of the county leader and his crew. The most common practice is for a division of the spoils between actual expenditures and largesse for those who made the nomination possible.
Taking a personal payoff is against the law, but crimes involving consent are very difficult to prove -- the villain must either be very careless, or take the stand himself in order to be convicted, and the district attorney must be very zealous or highly motivated for some other reason to make the case.
But what about the corruption. Look at Gary Cooper in "High Noon", 1952. He stood alone, against evil, almost losing Grace Kelly, but his courage, decency and marksmanship prevailed. Fifty-three years later, is there no one who will stand up to the ethically challenged schemers who run the Democratic Party in the state's most populous county? If "all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing", what should the good men and woman who are at the pinnacle of political power do about the roaches?
There should be a way to clean house by judicious measures, more than a wink and a nod but not a full scale invasion. The three are bright enough to be able to figure out how to do it with minimal force. After all, the Brooklyn organization is not good at winning elections. They are not even good at larceny, bribery or extortion, that's why they get caught.
We hope the high-ranking Democratic officeholders in New York State (and that should include State Comptroller Alan Hevesi), put some effort into solving this problem. Hevesi could devote his attention to his home county, Queens, which is comparable to Brooklyn in many ways, but is run by much smarter people.
Our Senators work hard to save the country from conservative judges. They should also be concerned about saving the counties they represent from corrupt and incompetent judges. And, if they fear it would be indiscreet of them to assume too great a lead personally in such an effort, we know that they can find honest and decent people who, in the interest of justice, will undertake the task.
#259 10.14.05 1939wds
Henry J. Stern
New York Civic
520 Eighth Avenue 22nd Floor
New York, NY 10018
(212) 564-5588 (fax)