March 6, 2014

BARELY LEGAL | Toppling the House of Cards — One N.Y. Legislator at a Time

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By ZELLNOR MYRIE

By now you are undoubtedly familiar with America’s favorite southern gentlemen — the wily, ruthless, but irresistibly charming politician from South Carolina who narrates his machinations for power to the camera as we (binge) watch from the comfort of our homes. Frances Underwood, the star of the popular Netflix series House of Cards, has captured the attention and adoration of millions of Americans with his unabashed thirst for power and willingness to do anything to attain it.

But what about the real Frank Underwoods out there?

There’s an operating assumption by the public that politics is inherently dirty and that every politician is somehow “on the take,” or getting kickbacks. This assumption, of course, does a great disservice to the countless elected officials around the country who serve honorably every day. But the unfortunate reality is that public corruption is not that uncommon. In fact, in many instances, it is legal. These laws that make it easier for politicians to compromise the integrity of government belong on TV, not in our state capitals and, unfortunately, we don’t have to look far to see how bad things have gotten.

In the last 15 years, New York has served as a dubious example of what happens when public corruption laws are weak. Since 1999, 22 legislators to leave office did so in handcuffs or under ethical violations. Recounting their many discretions would provide enough material for six seasons of House of Cards, but know that over the years, New York officials have been charged with bribery in exchange for favorable legislation, theft from fictitious non-profits receiving government aid, extortion, misappropriation of “pork” funds, racketeering and petit larceny. Oh, and that’s not including a recent scheme to rig the nominations for the New York City mayoral race in which one councilman stated that “money is what greases the wheels. ”

So how can we help put an end to (or at least abate) such systemic corruption? Let’s use fictitious New York Assemblymember, Hank Overwood, to flesh it out. If I wanted to wield some influence with Assemblyman Overwood, I could legally donate the maximum amount for an individual ($5,000) to his campaign, create a couple of Limited Liability Corporations and contribute the maximum for each LLC — they are treated as an individuals in New York — offer his chief-of-staff $9,000 in “pocket money” and all of this, in and of itself, would not be enough to convict him of impropriety.

Under current New York law, Overwood couldn’t be charged with bribery unless we had an “agreement and understanding” that my “contributions” to his political endeavors were intended to influence his actions as a public servant. So as long as I never explicitly asked Overwood for any favors, it would be very hard to convict him. Similarly, New York law has no prohibition on creating multiple LLC’s for the sole purpose of contributing to campaigns and also has a $10,000 threshold for felony bribery of a public servant.

These loopholes in the law contribute to the culture of corruption in New York government and need to be changed. As suggested by several commissions tasked with tackling government corruption, it’s time we lower the felony bribery threshold, treat LLC’s as corporations (and not as individuals) and change the “agreement and understanding” provision in the bribery law to a stricter standard.

All of these require simple changes to current state law that would show the public that New York is serious about cleaning up their government. Public corruption doesn’t just rob taxpayers of honest service and their hard-earned tax dollars: it erodes their trust and encourages civic apathy.  And while I enjoy watching House of Cards as much as the next person, I want my elected officials to be men and women who fight for the empowerment of the community, not of themselves.

No public official is perfect. Nor should we expect them to be. They will inevitably make mistakes and take positions that are unpopular or contrary to the will of their constituents. They are not, however, excused from serving with integrity to the best of their abilities. Our public corruption laws play an integral role in ensuring that they do so and New York has the opportunity to gain back the trust of its citizens with a few simple policy changes.

So sit back and enjoy the next time you watch Frank Underwood cajole, lie, and schmooze his way to the top — I know I will. But let’s not forget that while we’re watching, there are real Franks out there, plotting their next move. Hopefully some changes in the law will stop them dead in their tracks.

Zellnor Myrie is a first year law student. He can be reached at zym4@cornell.edu. Barely Legal appears on alternating Fridays this semester.

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