Albany and its merry band of politicians have a problem.
It’s not just the litany of lawmakers-gone-bad. It’s not just the sheer number of scandals.
It’s that the state’s lawmakers seem to think the public differentiates between the good ones and the bad.
The month started with legislators bristling at the broad picture of unethical behavior painted by the governor’s anti-corruption panel. It ended with yet another lawmaker singed by scandal.
“Public corruption has become all too commonplace and has eroded the public trust and confidence,” found the Moreland Commission, which noted “one out of every 11 legislators to leave office since 1999 has done so under the cloud of ethical or criminal violations.”
That doesn’t even include the ones who seem to treat the State Capitol as a middle-aged fraternity house.
The latest allegations, sexual harassment complaints against Democratic Assemblyman Dennis Gabryszak of Cheektowaga, seemed to stun even the scandal-soaked halls of Albany.
Three young aides to Gabryszak have accused the 62-year-old of a pattern of sexual harassment, including allegations of unwanted advances and a “hostile and offensive” work setting.
The allegations are unproven, filed with notice that the women will sue for being forced out of jobs. But if true, their description of Gabryszak makes him out to be nothing short of a creep.
Interwoven into the narrative in court papers is a picture of a freewheeling lawmaker who could order a worker to drive across the state and sit, on the taxpayers’ dime, in a district office with no work. It paints a picture of a lawmaker who promised a $100,000 salary to a staffer to move to Buffalo and who repeatedly told women he could fire them for any reason.
That’s the problem for the rest of the lawmakers, including the ones who know that sexual harassment is wrong. The culture of Albany is one of public officials entitled by a way of life in which even basic rules – how employees are hired, how campaign cash is raised, how public dollars are spent – are riddled with loopholes and leeway.
When the rules are fast and loose, it’s only a few wayward steps to bad behavior. We’ve seen it with corruption charges against state legislators, and we’ve seen it with a series of sex scandals that have plagued politicians.
It was just last spring when Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver apologized for his role in approving secret settlements with two women who accused Brooklyn Democrat Vito Lopez of sexual harassment. When top lawmakers help sweep away the mess, what message do underlings take away?
Lawmakers acted indignant that the Moreland Commission’s report spoke of “commonplace” ethical lapses. But scandal after scandal have done little to counteract that view.
Even the honest lawmakers need to fix the culture of political entitlement if they want to change public perception.
What do you call a politician who can’t keep the bad sex jokes to himself? A has-been. What do you call a place where the same mistakes happen again and again? Our State Capitol.