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New York State is known more for how it’s elected officials misbehave in office than anything else.

Ethical lapses dog Albany

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A report on turnover in the state legislature finds that more lawmakers left because of corruption related scandals and criminal charges than lost re-election bids, constituting what a government reform group is calling a "legislative crime wave". Karen Dewitt reports.

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Karen DeWitt
NYS Capitol Correspondent

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The government reform group Citizens Union found that 47 Senate and Assembly seats turned over in the most recent election, more than at any point since 1974 President Nixon resigned from office over the Watergate scandal, prompting a wave of voter dissatisfaction on nearly every level of government. 

But it was not a widespread resurgence of democracy and voter discontent that caused many lawmakers to leave, it was a wave of corruption related scandals, indictments, convictions, and even imprisonments, that accounted for many of the vacancies. The group’s Dick Dadey says over the past 6 years, 13 lawmakers have had to leave for ethical lapses, three times as many as compared to just four legislators who left because of corruption in the six years before that.

“That constitutes a crime wave,” said Dadey.

Among them, Senator Hiram Monserrate, who was expelled from the Senate after being convicted in a domestic violence case, Senator Pedro Espada, who lost a primary after criminal charges were filed accusing him of embezzlement, Assemblyman Tony Seminerio, who died recently in jail after a conviction on corruption charges, and most recently Senator Vincent Liebell, who resigned from the remainder of his term after pleading guilty to federal charges of accepting kickbacks. Only one third of the legislative turnover resulted from voters simply choosing another candidate in an election.

Dadey says the succession of scandals in the legislature, among former governors state comptrollers, and now in congress with the abrupt resignation of Western New York congressmen Chris Lee, has turned New York into a national joke.

 “New York State is known more for how it’s elected officials misbehave in office than anything else,” said Dadey. “ That is a real outrageous, disturbing fact.”

Governor Cuomo is currently negotiating an ethics reform bill in private with legislative leaders, that he says needs to include greater financial disclosure of outside income, and an independent ethics panel to better police lawmakers. 

For now government reform groups are giving the new governor a pass, saying while they are “not supportive” of secret talks, they give Cuomo credit for not trying to “score points” early on in his term with an “easy fix”. Former governor Eliot Spitzer won agreement on ethics reform in the first weeks after taking office, but the legislation was later recognized as deeply flawed.

Sue Lerner, with Common Cause, says it’s everyone hope that Cuomo’s approach will result in a better end product- real reform.

“We’re not going to get hung up on it if the bill that comes out is really a strong bill,” said Lerner.

But the groups say the governor should publicly release his own bill detailing the ethics reforms he seeks if he does not get cooperation from the legislature soon.

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