2006-07-20 / This Week's Attitude

This Week's Attitude

Stricter Reforms, Harsher Penalties For Rogue Politicians
By Neil S. Friedman

Cynical citizens commonly view politicians as corrupt, underhanded, greedy and sleazy. In some instances - at any government level - a few outwardly none-too-smart elected officials don't give the impression they're even qualified or deserve to hold office, much less participate in the legislative process.

But somehow, despite lacking the requisite resume, they get elected in what essentially comes down to a popularity contest with the eventual winner espousing more of what they think voters want to hear.

The latest politician to qualify on all those counts appears to be three-term Brooklyn legislator Diane Gordon, who represents the 40th Assembly District that encompasses several neighborhoods west and northwest of here and a slice of Canarsie.

Last week, as reported on the front pages of the Courier , as well as New York's two tabloids - the Daily News and the New York Post - Gordon was indicted by the Brooklyn District Attorney's office for her alleged involvement in a bribery scam that began in 2004 in which she promised to help a contractor acquire a city-owned parcel of land within her district valued at $2 million, if he would return the favor and build her - at no cost - a $500,000 dream house in a gated-Queens community, miles from her legislative district.

What the legislator obviously didn't know at the time of her transactions with the contractor was that he had been cooperating with the city's Department of Investigation, which employed a tactic that is not uncommon nowadays to catch corrupt politicians - videotaping conversations.

However, when Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes indicted Gordon earlier this year - after she watched the videotapes - he offered to the drop the charges, only if she agreed to resign from office and cooperate in a broader corruption investigation. Gordon initially acquiesced, but when she recently announced her plan to campaign for reelection, the DA's office withdrew her "Get Out of Jail Free" card and proceeded with the indictment and arraigned her in state Supreme Court last week on a variety of charges, including bribery, conspiracy and official misconduct.

The legislator's lawyer told the media she is innocent and added that she gave back the cash. Doesn't that imply she accepted it in the first place and might have kept it if she hadn't been exposed?

Gordon will be on the Democratic primary ballot in September. If she wins, her name will be on the November ballot just a few weeks before her next scheduled court date.

Gordon is just the latest state lawmaker from the city to be embroiled in legal problems the last several years. She joins Assemblyman Clarence Norman (convictions being appealed), Assemblyman Roger Green, State Senator Kevin Parker (his case was dismissed), Queens Senator Ada Smith, Bronx Senator Guy Velella, Bronx Assemblywoman Gloria Davis and judges Michael Feinberg and Michael Barron.

According to a July 16 article in The New York Times , since 2003, Gordon is the seventh state lawmaker from the city to have been accused of a crime, which is about 10 percent of the delegation. (A few are no longer in office.) While the offenses run the gamut from petty (throwing coffee at an employee) to serious (receiving a bribe), it, nevertheless, displays the mediocrity of our public servants, who sometimes can't resist the temptations of power that comes with their office.

Part of the problem also lies with apathetic voters, who don't take the time or make the smallest effort to find out about the candidates who want to represent them, whether in City Hall, Albany or Washington, DC. Voters have a responsibility to determine which candidate best suits their needs and the needs of the community.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who past and present has not been immune to allegations of violations, pointed the finger of responsibility at voters, when he told the Times, "We don't pick our members...(they) are sent by their communities..."

A veteran politician, Silver well knows that Democrat and Republican candidates, in most instances, don't just come out of the woodwork. They are typically handpicked by power brokers for party machines, who expect something in return at a later date, usually in the form of legislative support.

He added that you "can't legislate honesty," but did not acknowledge that Albany has a long way to go to institute meaningful reforms, stricter oversight and a higher standard of ethics. Excessive lobbying, including gifts and free meals and fundraisers organized by those seeking to influence legislation, too often dominates Albany politics. Despite being lawful, it exerts too much pressure on legislators and appears to create a fine line between corruption and fair dealings.

If convicted, Gordon faces a maximum sentence of 15 years. Consequently, she may yet reside in a gated community, but not the particular type she had in mind when she allegedly orchestrated her scheme. This one would be in a gated community operated by the state of New York's penal system.

If only she'd been clever enough not to renege on the deal she'd agreed to with prosecutors. But, Diane Gordon's a politician and corroborates that citizens are - from time to time - right on the mark when it comes to political cynicism.

Regrettably, there will always be candidates like Diane Gordon, who try to take advantage of their position and the system, but it's up to conscientious voters to vigilantly sift out those who appear to be more selfless and sincere than their opponents.

That may be asking a lot, but it's the only process available.

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