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New York politics: scared straight or ripe for reform?

By Edith Honan

NEW YORK (Reuters) - When Attorney Preet Bharara brought two corruption cases against New York state politicians this week, accusing some of selling their votes and another of trying to bribe his way onto the ballot, he challenged the political class to clean up the system.

Some political veterans worry any reforms are destined to fail, and that only a federal prosecutor like Bharara can crack down on crookedness.

Asked if this week's cases could be the straw that breaks the camel's back in the state capital Albany, former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer was quick to respond: "No, this camel's very strong."

Over the last seven years, 31 New York state office holders have been convicted, censured, or otherwise accused of wrong-doing, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.

"There need to be enough cases made so that people realize the likelihood of being caught increases," Spitzer, also a former state attorney general whose political rise was tied to his challenges of Wall Street corruption, told Reuters. "And that at the end of the day is going to be what changes the system."

In 2006, Spitzer captured the governor's mansion in a landslide victory after campaigning that "Day One, Everything Changes." His aggressive efforts at reform were cut short two years later, when he resigned amid a prostitution scandal.

Citizens Union Executive Director Dick Dadey said there was a "crime wave of corruption" in Albany and in New York City but he is hopeful the cases will lead to reforms.

"I very much hope that this is the thread that is being pulled out of the sweater and will unravel everything," said Dadey, whose group has long pushed for more transparency.

Bharara, the chief federal prosecutor in Manhattan, brought charges against state Senator Malcolm Smith on Tuesday, accusing him of a plot to buy a spot on New York City's mayoral ballot. New York City Councilman Daniel Halloran was charged with accepting bribes to set up meetings between Smith and two Republican party leaders, who were also charged.

Lawyers for both men said they will fight the charges.

Two days later, Assemblyman Eric Stevenson was charged with accepting more than $22,000 in bribes in exchange for helping four businessmen establish a network of senior daycare centers in the Bronx. He too plans to fight the charges, his lawyer said.

"Federal prosecutors and federal agents are doing everything we can to proactively attack the corruption problem. And it's time for others to step up also," Bharara said.

Experts worry reformers will step back, not up.

"The state government really breeds a culture where it's all about the money," said Bill Mahoney of the New York Public Interest Research Project.

"Every single week in Albany there's a dozen fundraisers within a block of the state capitol, and as soon as legislators finish voting on a bill, they walk over to a fundraiser and get checks from the people who told them to vote a certain way on that," said Mahoney.

"A LACK OF WILL"

While Illinois and Louisiana may have the greater reputation for corruption, New York has its own colorful history, best exemplified by William "Boss" Tweed, who built a Democratic Party political machine in mid-19th Century New York City that held power until Republican Fiorello La Guardia was elected mayor in 1933.

The culture of Tweed's Tammany Hall machine persists. State lawmakers are now more likely to be ousted from office because of criminal or ethical issues than defeated in a general election, according to the New York Public Interest Research Group.

Advocates of reform also cite weak campaign finance laws and limitations on prosecutors as impediments. New York has the highest contribution limits of those states that set limits, for example allowing an individual donation per election cycle of almost $17,000 to a state senator.

This week, Citizens Union released a series of reform proposals including giving the state attorney general the power to pursue public corruption and election law violations, rather than leaving such enforcement to local law enforcement. The group also called for instituting nonpartisan elections in city races and passage of comprehensive campaign finance reform.

Bharara said corruption was to be expected given "a lack of transparency, a lack of self-disclosure, a lack of self policing, a lack of will, and a failure of leadership."

Governor Andrew Cuomo - the former state attorney general who came into office in 2011 on a reform platform - has said he intends to take up a campaign finance reform bill this year.

Cuomo won plaudits for an ethics reform bill passed in his first year, but was criticized for declining to wield his veto power after state lawmakers drew up self-serving electoral boundaries during the once-a-decade redistricting process.

This week's charges could encourage bold action from a shamed legislature said Larry Norden, deputy director at the Brennan Center. "Politically, I think this has the potential to have an impact in a way that previous scandals have not."

Still, reformers say that, without overwhelming pressure, lawmakers are unlikely to curb their own powers or to make it easier for investigators to monitor their activities.

For example, good government groups have long decried the existence of large pots of undefined money, set aside for infrastructure spending in the state or for local initiatives in New York City. In the cases brought this week, Halloran is said to have offered to redirect City Council member funds in exchange for money, while prosecutors say Smith boasted of money outside the budget that is "always around."

And yet, the existence of those funds creates enormous power for leaders who can dole them out.

Watchdog groups and political analysts also hope to empower state and local prosecutors to do more.

"In a well-functioning state, this would be done at the local level and not at the federal level," said Daniel Richman, a former federal prosecutor who worked under Giuliani and is now a law professor at Columbia University.

"I'm one of those who thinks that having overlapping jurisdictions, particularly for white-collar crimes, are a good thing," Richman said. "They lead to competition."

(Editing by Daniel Trotta and Tim Dobbyn)

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