Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Statement By Steve Cohen On New York State Corruption

March 2, 2010
Steven Cohen
Executive Director, The Earth Institute, Columbia University

The Corrupt Spectacle of New York's State Government

I confess that I am old enough to remember seeing John F. Kennedy on a little black and white TV screen, challenging me to ask what I could do for my country. I suppose that it was in that moment that I became interested in public service and politics, and all these years later my commitment is battered but still intact. The assassinations of the 1960's and the attempt on President Reagan in 1981 were terrifying, but in some way almost ennobling. Our leaders seemed like heroes, and these larger-than-life figures never had to tell us, Richard Nixon style, "I am not a crook." Some, like Teddy Kennedy, let us down, but then lived long enough to redeem themselves in our eyes.

But today, the slow and steady debasement of public service in New York is visible across the spectrum, characterized by disgraced ex-police commissioner Bernie Kerick's disgusting corruption, State Senator Hiram Monserrate's self-righteous domestic abuse, former Governor Elliot Spitzer's famous role as client number 9, and now, Governor David Paterson's ridiculous claim that he "never abused his office." No, it's just that he may have talked an alleged abuse victim into staying silent. Ask not, indeed.

Corruption is of course not limited to New York, and it is not new. The Tweed Court House that is now the home of the City's Department of Education has been termed a monument to corruption. Uncounted (literally) millions of dollars passed through the Democratic Party's corrupt and greedy hands during the twenty years (1861-1881) it took to construct that stately structure. Some have even argued that the corrupt party bosses of Tammany Hall helped the city absorb the waves of immigration in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Political boss rule was seen as a necessary part of the city's economic and political development.

Yet while sin and corruption are not new, and my boyhood hero John Kennedy probably had more than wealth in common with Elliot Spitzer, I am starting to think that the American crisis of public ethics has spun out of control. There are two central aspects to this crisis:

* The first is the corrosive impact of money in politics, exacerbated by the Supreme Court's recent decision that campaign contributions are a form of free speech subject to virtually no limitations.

* The second is the abuse of power, which takes many forms, from Congressman Rangel's use of four rent-stabilized apartments to the illicit use of the Governor's state trooper detail to intimidate a victim of domestic abuse to Kerik's quarter million dollar apartment renovation by (of course) a mob-connected contractor.

Since America is the land of free market capitalism, why does this matter? Shouldn't we have a free market in terms of political influence? The problem is that corruption, oddly enough, corrupts. If the rule of law is a meaningless game, and everything is for sale, then there is no rule of law and, in the end, no civilization. Wealth in a modern economy requires rules that create certainty so that people are willing to invest their capital and put it to work instead of hiding it under the mattress. Political corruption is a primary cause of economic malaise. Without the incredible civic citizenship of New York's unions, elected officials and business leaders in the mid-1970's, New York City would have ended up bankrupt and in permanent decline. The temporary cessation of corruption and the presence of enlightened self-interest led to the revival that New York City enjoys today.

In contrast, the horrifying dysfunction of the political elite in Albany has directly contributed to the economic decline of upstate New York. In the 1970's we had the courageous leadership of then-Governor Hugh Carey. Today, we have former Senate leader Joe Bruno facing jail time, Assembly Leader Shelly Silver still collecting huge fees from his law practice, and a governor who may be guilty of obstructing justice. Investments in infrastructure and funding for business incentives are pushed aside in an effort to placate health care and education interests and unions. Perhaps at one time we were rich enough to afford this level of payoff, but its clear that those days are long over.

We need to search for a systemic cure for this disease of corruption. We need a real system of checks and balances that makes it clear to public officials that if they abuse the public's trust, someone is watching and they will get caught. But we also need to change the overall environment in our state government. I would start by tightly regulating outside income for legislators while increasing their salaries. Legislators make an average of $90,000 a year in New York, and we still operate under the myth that these are part time jobs. New York's budget is over $130 billion dollars a year. Running a state of this size should be a full time job and not a hobby. While average New Yorkers may think that $90,000 is a lot of money, it is not. These low salaries are an invitation for corruption - and many of our legislators seem to be accepting that invitation.

Still, the corrupt and dysfunctional environment in Albany does not excuse the abuse of power that the Governor, the state police and his top aide have been accused of. If the investigation proves that these charges are true, not only should Governor Patterson resign, but he should be prosecuted as well. Personally, I hope these charges are untrue, although I fear that that the worst is yet to come.

Steven Cohen is the Executive Director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute and is also Director of the Master of Public Administration Program in Environmental Science and Policy at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. From 2002 to 2006 he directed education programs at the Earth Institute. From 1998 to 2001 Cohen was Vice dean of Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs. From 1985 to 1998 he was the Director of Columbia's Graduate Program in Public Policy and Administration. From 1987-1998 Cohen was Associate Dean for Faculty and Curriculum at SIPA.

He is a graduate of James Madison High School in Brooklyn (1970), Franklin College of Indiana (1974) and the State University of New York at Buffalo (M.A., 1977; Ph.D., 1979). In 1976-77 Cohen was a Ford Foundation Fellow in Urban Environmental Policy; in 1978-79 he was a Rockefeller Foundation Fellow in Public and Environmental Policy and Implementation.

Dr. Cohen served as a policy analyst in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from 1977 through 1978 and 1980-81, and as consultant to the agency from 1981 through 1991, from 1994 to 1996 and from 2005 to the present. From 1990-94, Cohen served on the Board of the Pew Faculty Fellowship in International Affairs; he has also served on the Executive Committee and Committee on Accreditation and Peer Review of the National Association of Schools of Public Affairs and Administration. From 2001 to 2004 he served on the United States Environmental Protection Agency's Advisory Council on Environmental Policy and Technology. He serves on the Board of Directors of Homes for the Homeless.

Cohen is the author of The Effective Public Manager (1988), Understanding Environmental Policy (2006) and the co-author of Environmental Regulation Through Strategic Planning (1991), Total Quality Management in Government (1993), The New Effective Public Manager (1995), Tools for Innovators: Creative Strategies for Managing Public Sector Organizations (1998), The Effective Public Manager 3rd and 4th editions (2002, 2008), Strategic Planning in Environmental Regulation (2005), The Responsible Contract Manager (2008), and numerous articles on public management innovation, public ethics and environmental management.

Dr. Cohen has taught courses in public management, policy analysis, environmental policy and management innovation. In 1982 Cohen developed, and until 2001 directed, Columbia's Workshops in Applied Public Management and Applied Policy Analysis; bringing practical professional education into the center of Columbia's public administration curriculum. He has conducted professional training seminars in total quality management, strategic planning, project management and management innovation.

Cohen was born in Orange, New Jersey, and raised in Brooklyn, New York. He now resides in New York City with his wife, Donna Fishman and their two wonderful daughters, Gabriella and Ariel.


  1. If your intrested in the corrupt Katie Davidson judge ( pathic) she never had a case like mine and I'm famous in the WC courthouse because I'm fighting the black magic of her bogus anything but "fact finding" she's tampered with evidence and done many more violations not to mention how she's in bed with Wayne Humphrey (county attorney she worked with for 7 years) I'm preparing shortly to take action against her and others in the courthouse. I have met with 3 polititions and they had no trouble believing me. It's one thing to tell our story, but we need to make changes, I'm committed to this.pls contact ssteve318@yahoo.com

  2. A very interesting case to research and look into is a case of Meanwell Vs Bump in Maney's(Albany County) court. It has come to light from court records that Bump used stolen information against Meanwell which was obtained from his aunt Jaqueline Hankle who was just arrested and prosecuted by the NYS Inspector generals office for obtaining state non public information for his use within family court. By all accounts of the court records Bump's attorney Supovitz was involved quite deeply too in using the stolen information against Meanwell. A very illegal tactic was used against Meanwell by all involved. Keep watching this case it should be quite interesting. The judge was obviously involved in this also.