By Joseph Spector, Gannett Albany Bureau Chief
ALBANY In the Tammany Hall-controlled Legislature of the late 1800s, state lawmakers would introduce "ripper bills" that would either be adopted or rejected depending on the size of the bribes.
After two bribery scandals in recent days, Albany's corrupt culture seems to be alive and well, prosecutors said.
"Once again, we have members of the Legislature allegedly acting as mercenaries," U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, the Manhattan-based federal prosecutor who brought the charges, said Thursday. "Once again, we are forced to consider how pervasive corruption is in New York government."
Former Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith, D-Queens, was charged Tuesday with trying to bribe Republican officials to win him to the GOP nomination for New York City mayor.
Two days later, Assemblyman Eric Stevenson, D-Bronx, was arrested for allegedly accepting $22,000 in bribes to push legislation to help the local developers of an adult-day-care facility.
Stevenson was undone because Assemblyman Nelson Castro, D-Bronx, agreed four years ago to serve as an informant after he was busted for perjury. Castro wore a wiretap, and Stevenson is heard boasting of how he could use his influence to help the developers, according to the criminal complaint.
"I just need you to tell me what they want; we prepare the bill...You can write down the language, basically what you want," Stevenson said last December, according to the complaint.
The casualness of the conversations startled lawmakers and long-time political observers, and it plunged New York government into a deeper mire of mistrust.
"That type of behavior is disgusting. It's not fit for an elected official. It's not fit for anybody," said Assemblyman Kenneth Zebrowski, D-New City, Rockland County, who used to sit in front of Stevenson in the Assembly chambers. "It's so incredibly blatant; it casts a shadow on our entire system."
More state senators have been arrested over the past six years -- 12 of them -- than lost a general election: only nine.
Stevenson and Smith were accused of actions that sounded as if they came from a crime thriller: exchanging cash and favors in parking lots and, in one case, an Albany bathroom.
"That's politics, that's politics. It's all about how much ... and that's our politicians in New York. They're all like that," New York City Councilman Dan Halloran, an alleged Smith co-conspirator, said last September in a taped conversation, according to Bharara.
The brazenness of the cases has renewed calls for ethics and campaign-finance reforms in Albany.
"We have to make the consequences more serious and painful for those who violate the public trust and exhibit such abhorrent behavior," said Amy Paulin, D-Scarsdale, Westchester County.
Good-governments groups want publicly financed campaigns. Citizens Union, a reform group, said the state should change its primary elections so all voters can choose candidates, rather than by one party and thus limiting party bossism.
The state Board of Elections needs stronger teeth and inspectors to oversee campaign violations, the groups said. The board has no inspectors.
"It's the influence of money that's the corrupting factor," said former Assemblyman Michael Benjamin, D-Bronx. He said campaign fundraising and the power of lobbying all play a role in the culture at the state Capitol.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has sought to restore integrity in state government since taking office in 2011. He was the first governor elected after Eliot Spitzer resigned in 2008 amid a prostitution scandal.
But Cuomo, the former Democratic attorney general, has been knocked for installing a new ethics panel, the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, that critics have said is ineffective. Cuomo is expected to seek tougher laws after the recent spate of scandals, including a push for campaign-finance reform.
"Those of us committed to the public and honored to hold its trust have zero tolerance for the actions brought to light this week," Cuomo said in a statement late Thursday.
Some lawmakers said the cases unfairly put a stain on all of them. Twenty-nine state lawmakers have had ethical or legal troubles since 2000 - more than 10 percent of the 213-member Legislature.
"People like Eric Stevenson and Nelson Castro, while they might get the headlines, they are the clear exceptions to the rule of behavior and the rule of conduct that members of both the Assembly and Senate live by," said Assembly Majority Leader Joseph Morelle, D-Irondequoit, Monroe County.
Some political observers said New York has long bred a culture of corruption, particularly in New York City -- where most of the scandals have emanated and where the Tammany Hall political machine engineered corruption and graft for a century.
Also in the city, Democrats control most offices, so unless there's an intra-party struggle, incumbents are re-elected with little opposition. Castro was re-elected twice, even as he was secretly serving as an informant. In another example, Assemblyman Vito Lopez, D-Brooklyn, won re-election last November even after he was accused of sexually harassing young female aides.
"They don't have a moral compass. They're in a situation to advance themselves," Gerald Benjamin, a political science professor at the state University College at New Paltz, said of some politicians. "And the risk-benefit calculation suggests to them that they can get away with it."
Bharara condemned the whole system. He said lawmakers seemed too at ease with receiving bribes, as if it were commonplace. Fellow lawmakers, he said, aren't doing enough to curb the actions of others.
"It makes you wonder," he said, "how much other stuff is out there?"