New York Civic is now in its eleventh year of publishing articles about government and politics in New York City and New York State. The first one we wrote was on March 21, 2002, “A Money Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” which dealt with former councilmember and Brooklyn Democratic leader, Clarence Norman.
Today's article is No. 823. There has been a hiatus in the last few months as we and the American public were appropriately preoccupied by the terrible catastrophes of hurricanes and massacres. Those awful events are now receiving the full attention of national and state authorities. Momentum, for the nonce, is on the side of common decency and respect for human life. This enables us to return to the familiar but insistently aggravating themes of municipal corruption and incompetence.
In this case, the news is the sentencing of former City Councilmember Larry Seabrook to five years in prison and restitution of $620,000 to New York City for money he fraudulently received through anti-poverty groups he controlled.
The five-year sentence that Seabrook received from Federal Judge Deborah A. Batts follows the 27 years he served as an elected official from the Bronx. He was elected six times to the Assembly, State Senate and the City Council, losing an election only when he attempted to unseat Congressman Eliot Engel in 2000.
Benjamin Weiser reported in the New York Times on January 8:
“He was convicted in July of orchestrating a broad scheme to funnel hundreds of thousands of dollars in city money to friends, relatives and a girlfriend through a network of nonprofit groups that prosecutors said he controlled.”
Seabrook's repeated plundering of the non-profits he secretly controlled dwarfs the more frequent political corruption cases, where an elected official is brought down on the basis of a handful of incidents. It indicates pervasive dishonesty in a system where politicians fund community groups, ostensibly to encourage community participation but in reality to provide kickbacks to their supporters.
The City Council has made a number of changes in its procedures for allocating these funds, but it has not ended the practice of having particular elected officials determine the nature and extent of subsidies to alleged nonprofits, which often generate substantial profits for their officers.
The process of stamping out corruption is made more difficult because of the ingenuity of officials who manipulate the system to protect themselves and the people whom they are shielding.
An immediate improvement could be made by requiring a larger number of people to approve a subsidy, prohibiting the receipt of funds by relatives or close associates of elected officials and their staffs, and requiring the frequent submission of documentation to prove the effectiveness of the allotted funds.
Intensive review by accountants would be helpful, but we should not be required to spend as much money checking out the grantees as we spend on the grants.
Probably the best remedies for this type of institutional corruption that permeates many agencies are the vigorous prosecution of cases, prison sentences long enough to discourage recidivism, required restitution of all ill-gotten gains and a substantial effort to change behavior patterns which lead to dishonest actions by public employees and those who would lead them to unethical conduct.
Years ago we reported that the indictment rate for City Council members was higher than that for teenagers in the South Bronx. For any elected officials convicted of felonies, which prompt automatic removal of office, there were others whose improper behavior could not be proven to reach that level of criminality.
In certain countries salaries of public officials are relatively low and they are expected to receive much of their income from tips from people they have assisted in the course of their duties. (Bribes, you may call them.)
In New York City and State, we do not accept that view. We believe that public officials' compensation should come from their salaries, not the largess of those their action may favor. That is the basic attitude that we should require of our public officials: accept no money from businesses or private citizens for doing one's job. Hire no relatives whether spouses, significant others, and no one where personal friendship is the principal aspect of the relationship. Publish monthly the list of organizations, including their officers, receiving public funds. Prosecute those who have used their positions for personal expenditure. The poster boy for this type of action is Pedro Espada of the Bronx. But he is far from the only practitioner of this particular vice.
In many investigations into political corruption, the question arises: who knew? What other officials were there who were aware of the schemes but did not report them? It is likely that many people knew what was going on but were in no position to report it for fear of losing their jobs, therefore the degrees of culpability vary.