May 16, 2012 at 5:00 am by TU Editorial Board
Our opinion: The poster boy for legislative corruption is likely headed to prison. Can a culture that promotes and enables such wrongdoing get any worse?
It’s creepy to remember that less than two years ago, Pedro Espada Jr. was the majority leader of the New York Senate and one of the most powerful, not to mention objectionable, people in all of state government.
It’s just as unsettling to recall the travesty that allowed him to rise so high in a corruption-plagued state Legislature for which he made embarrassment a personal art form. Such was the price of resolving first the coup and then the partisan stand-off that rendered the Senate impotent for much of the summer of 2009. Republicans and Democrats alike were complicit in Mr. Espada’s political terrorism.
He was by then in his second tenure as a senator, having previously been voted out of office, only to get elected, again, in 2008, from a Bronx district where he didn’t even live.
He immediately lusted for power as part of a group known as the “Four Amigos.” One, Hiram Monserrate, was later removed from the Senate after an assault conviction. Another, Carl Kruger, was sentenced to prison last month in a bribery and corruption scandal.
Now Mr. Espada, too, is a convicted criminal. He was found guilty Monday of stealing a half million dollars from a Bronx health care network he created and ran — with the invaluable help, that is, of government funding he was able to procure.
So add Mr. Espada’s name to a breathtakingly long list of legislators-turned-felons for whom public service was a sham. Still, there ought to be a special place for him in such ignoble company.
He may well be the most blatant example yet of the tolerance for corruption that extends from the most ordinary citizens to the most powerful lawmakers. To say good riddance to Mr. Espada is to yearn for a public awakening that will make his downfall the point at which the stain of sleaze that has blotted state government might begin to be erased.
If New York is to learn anything from this, it must begin with the realization that legislators are lousy at policing themselves. It was state and federal prosecutors who finally blew the whistle on Espada, not his accommodating colleagues.
It’s only this week, in fact, with the launch of an investigation of another powerful senator, Thomas Libous, R-Binghamton, by the new Joint Commission on Public Ethics, that a legislator is apparently facing such scrutiny. But even if it were to find wrongdoing in that case, JCOPE couldn’t take action against the senator. By law, that’s still up to the Legislature’s own ethics panel, which has never penalized a sitting legislator.
So in addition to a public demand that prosecutors keep their eye on law-breaking lawmakers, what else might we draw from the Espada episode? This, certainly: There needs to be a much brighter line separating the allocation of public funds for often worthwhile purposes — a health care network, in this case — and the politicians who might use that funding to promote themselves.
Listen to federal prosecutor Todd Kaminsky’s brutally honest summation of Mr. Espada’s view toward the clinics that served as his base of power: “I own Soundview. I built Soundview. I am Soundview. Who’s going to stop me?”
The law stopped Pedro Espada, finally. But not before his looting had left Soundview in shambles and the services it had provided to 25,000 people a year in doubt. And not before he joined the growing number of legislators seemingly committed to personal enrichment at public expense.
Maybe this is the point at which the cleanup really begins.