By Joseph Spector
ALBANY - Former Queens state Sen. Seymour Lachman says he has a photo in his office of the state Senate from the early 2000s.
Of the 62 members in the portrait, at least a dozen have been arrested, convicted or left office under a cloud. And the list seems to grow each year.
"It's unbelievable," said Lachman, a Wagner College professor and author of Three Men In A Room, a 2006 book that's critical of the Legislature.
The state Legislature's approval has grown over the past year under Gov. Andrew Cuomo's stewardship, polls have shown. But the parade of current and former state lawmakers in legal trouble is seemingly an endless stream.
New York is far from unique in that regard, but former and current state lawmakers said a mix of arrogance, the Albany culture, lax ethics oversight and the power of legislative leaders have offered opportunities for misdeeds.
"Too many people go down there maybe with the right intentions, but then that changes over the years and all of sudden they're there to try and make their own lives better and make money," said former Assemblyman David Koon, D-Perinton, Monroe County, who served 15 years before losing re-election in 2010.
The latest troubled politician is former state Sen. Nick Spano, R-Yonkers. The Westchester County powerbroker pleaded guilty Feb. 10 to federal tax evasion, admitting he underreported his outside income during part of his 20 years in the Senate.
After his arrest, Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said, "Spano is the latest in a regrettably long line of lawmakers turned lawbreakers."
A report last year by Citizens Union, a good-government group, found that 17 state legislators either left office or lost their seat due to ethical and criminal issues between 1999 and 2010.
The report is already stale.
Sen. Carl Kruger, D-Brooklyn, resigned in December in a teary plea deal in which he admitted to accepting $1 million in bribes. He faces nine to 11 years in prison.
Assemblyman William Boyland Jr., D-Brooklyn, pleaded not guilty last month in a federal bribery case. That's after he was acquitted last November on similar charges.
A sense of invincibility among lawmakers can provoke misdoings, said Assemblyman Joel Miller, R-Poughkeepsie.
"You have people who really believe that there is something special about them," Miller said. "They go to places, everyone makes them feel good. Everyone shakes their hand; everyone knows their name. They are honored at this event or that event."
Yet he added, "None of that's true. We work for the people and too many people have forgotten that."
Former Sen. Vincent Leibell, R-Patterson, Putnam County, is serving two years in prison after being sentenced last month on corruption charges. Raymond Maguire, a former Leibell aide, started a four-month jail sentence Friday in the case.
Some lawmakers past and present said too often the entire Legislature is painted with the broad brush of the few troubled lawmakers. After all, they said, 18 lawmakers who left under a cloud is a small percentage of the 212 seats in the Assembly and Senate.
"To say it's the Legislature, baloney," said former Sen. Dale Volker, R-Depew, Erie County, who retired in 2010 after 37 years in the Legislature.
Michael Benjamin, a former Democratic assemblyman from the Bronx, said most lawmakers are well intentioned.
"Most of the people there are doing a good job and are there for the right reasons," he said.
Lachman, who served for nine years in the Senate, and other critics said they favor term limits and less power by legislative leaders.
"There are people there who serve 20, 30, 40 years," Lachman said, "and really believe that they are glued onto their chair if they do what the majority leader of the Senate and the speaker of the Assembly want them to do. If they do that, they get in return lifetime tenure."
Good-government groups said an ethics reform package that took effect last year should quell some of the trouble lawmakers get themselves into.
A new panel, the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, is overseeing the legislative and executive branches. Legislators will have to disclose ranges of their outside income and disclose their outside business dealings - which is usually at the heart of where lawmakers have run afoul.
"Our strong hope is that the new ethics law will bring a level of transparency on previously unknown activities that will stop a good part of this corruption and double dealing," said Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, based in Manhattan.
Still, Dadey said it would come down to enforcement of the new law. For example, Spano failed to report $53,000 in income taxes, but he also didn't disclose his income from a consulting company on his legislative ethics disclosure forms for several years, prosecutors said.
By Joseph Spector, Gannett Albany