May 31, 2006
Leveling The Playing Field
This week Wayne Prospect, a former county legislator and campaign advisor for County Executive Steve Levy, was convicted of bribe receiving and conspiracy. Prospect, along with a second Levy associate Steve Baranello, who pled guilty to the same charges, was caught on video taking money from an undercover cop posing as a contractor. In exchange, they promised to get him a lucrative county construction contract. Throughout the trial both defendants emphasized Levy didn't know nor would he ever condone what they were up to.
Also this year, about a half dozen paving companies that subcontract with Suffolk were indicted by the federal government, suspected of bid rigging. County officials have estimated they snookered Suffolk out of $1 million through price fixing. Review of Board of Election filings show the companies or their principals contributed thousands to the campaign funds for Levy, Legislator Ed Romaine, Former Presiding Officer Joe Caracappa, and Presiding Officer Bill Lindsay. The federal probe lasers in on the members of the alleged asphalt cartel who supposedly hatched their scheme amongst themselves, again, outside the ken of elected officials.
When individuals or entities that are supporters of candidates or elected officials run into trouble with the law, it's only human nature to look at the politician that interacted with them, or accepted campaign contributions and say "hmmmmm." Anyone who thinks "guilt by association" isn't a hurdle to overcome is living in a fantasyland. Consider the case of President George W. Bush. Enron's Kenneth Lay was a huge campaign contributor, and Bush called his benefactor "Kenny Boy."
That's exactly why Legislator Jay Schneiderman's campaign finance reform bill deserves support. He's suggesting capping the amount of money a candidate can accept from any company that does business with Suffolk at $500.
Having the names of companies or individuals accused of wrongdoing show up on a candidate's campaign filings must certainly be a source of unease for any elected official, not to mention glee for political foes. Obviously, candidates don't have crystal balls and can't predict whether a contributor might subsequently commit a crime, but an across-the- board limit can eliminate the potential suspicion of bad guys exerting undue influence. That's the essence of ethics law: avoiding even the appearance of impropriety.
We like Schneiderman's idea — it's a good start — and frankly, we are surprised more of the South Fork lawmaker's colleagues haven't embraced it, especially those who won their seats as part of the Democratic "Clean Up Suffolk County" team. Debate of the bill has danced around what's really behind opposition – candidates need lots of money to win elections these days. They can't bear to give up any campaign contributions.
Representatives for the county executive, who was the standard bearer of the Clean Up Suffolk County team have derided Schneiderman's bill as a "pretend reform." They say he has a better plan. We're eager to see it, and even more eager to see real action taken to address campaign finance reform.