William Sulzer seldom gets recalled in any panoply of New York State’s most prominent executives; his portrait is not hanging in the Capitol’s “Hall of Governors.” After serving just nine months in 1913, he became the first and only Governor in the state’s history to be impeached and removed from office. By then, Albany’s reputation for corruption was set, but it would take a full century for someone to come along as Governor who could match “Plain Bill’s” record.
Sulzer was convicted of diverting his campaign money to fund stock purchases, and doing a poor job of forging the records. The charges were not heinous by the standards of the day; and now through our modern lens, they seem to be the sort of run-of-the-mill Albany campaign finance scam we have come accustomed to.
If you are thinking that this was the type of thing that often occurred in turn-of-the-century New York politics, you’re right; and the real story of this trial only brings even more cloudiness. After all, it was Tammany men – not exactly known for their Aristotelian ethics – that led the crusade against the “morally unfit” Sulzer, who was elected on a populist wave of angst against the party bosses and political machines. It was only after the reform-minded Governor’s refusal to appoint enough Tammany cronies to the Capitol’s patronage bazaar that they turned on him.
Whether you side with “Plain Bill” or with the party machine that brought him down, New Yorkers have to look back 105 years to find example of the type of criminal envelopment of the executive branch that we now read in daily headlines. Few people are unaware of Albany’s legacy of unethical government, but New Yorkers of all parties should be aware and concerned that the level of corruption we see within the Cuomo administration is historically unprecedented in modern times.
Between Sulzer’s removal and Cuomo’s election, sixteen men occupied the executive mansion on Albany’s Eagle Street. Sure there was scandal, controversy, and questionable behavior, but not one Governor in the last 100 years can match the number of convictions, criminal investigations, corruption accusations, and the seemingly plain-sight violation of ethics rules.
Some were placeholders. Martin Glynn finished the rest of Sulzer’s term, earning him the distinction of being New York’s first Catholic governor. He did not win election in 1914 and ultimately took his own life after suffering from chronic pain. Charles Poletti was also elevated from Lt. Governor for the final month of 1942, before the term expired and he joined the war effort. His predecessor was Herbert Lehman, who after four scandal-free terms, went on to head the U.N.’s relief efforts and served as a U.S. Senator. Malcolm Wilson similarly ascended to the governorship in 1973, and although he was never accused of impropriety, the Watergate scandal would sink his and many other Republican re-election efforts around the country, despite having no personal connection whatsoever.
The last Governor to never have won his own election to the office was David Patterson. While it is true that chaos reigned in Albany under his brief Administration; the convictions fell on the legislature. After sinking poll numbers and an unproven accusation over interference in a police investigation, he was forced to step aside by Andrew Cuomo and Company. President Obama personally helped deliver the message to the state’s first black governor. The ‘Dark Prince’ would not wait another four years.
Paterson would not retire unblemished, however. He was charged with an ethics violation and fined $62,125 for the not-so-heinous crime of taking free tickets as Governor to watch the Yankees play in the 2009 World Series. This comes off as mere child’s play when considering the scandal that sunk the man he replaced. Few can forget the sordid tale of the man known as ‘Client #9;” there was the hooker, the jilted wife, the socks. Eliot Spitzer also faced “Troopergate” in 2007, a scandal involving his communication aides’ leaking damaging State Police records on the Republican Senate Majority Leader.
Six down, ten to go.
Some are better known than others. Republicans Charles Whitman and Nathan Miller are somewhat lost to history. Whitman was a hard-nosed prosecutor who gained fame by busting up various rackets around Manhattan; Miller served as the state Comptroller and on the Court of Appeals. Both retired scandal-free.
Averell Harriman is no longer the household name he once was. He faced an inquiry over a bribery allegation in 1951, a full four years before his swearing in as Governor. The lead investigator concluded the charges were “entirely unsubstantiated.” He also served as an Ambassador, the Secretary of Commerce under Truman, and the Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs under Kennedy. Harriman State Park in New York is actually named after his parents; but luckily, there is also one in Idaho that honors him.
Three-term Republican Thomas Dewey earned his reputation taking on the mob. He successfully prosecuted Lucky Luciano, Dutch Shultz, and Tammany boss James Joseph Hines. He ran for president for the second time in 1948 and came close enough to winning that the Chicago Tribune ran the most famous newspaper error in history, “DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN.”
Two-term Democrat Hugh Carey is noteworthy for keeping the state solvent during the financial crisis of the 1970’s. The controversies surrounding his time in office are few. There was concern over his removal of a special council in 1975, but biographers Robert Polner and Sen. Seymour Lachman have described his administration as “virtually free of corruption scandal and patronage.”
Nelson A. Rockefeller’s brand of politics may have been more provocative, but there are no allegations of his corruption. Modern politicians are still lambasting his controversial drug reforms, and his contemporary critics focused on his violent and deadly put-down of the Attica Prison riot in 1971. Still, he went on to serve as Gerald Ford’s Vice President.
The next moderate Republican governor would, however, face allegations of ‘pay-to-play.’ George Pataki stood accused of selling paroles in exchange for campaign donations during his first run for office. Three members of the Parole Board were convicted of lying to investigators, and the fundraiser, Yung Soo Yoo, was convicted of obstruction of justice. The jury did not find there had been any quid pro quo arrangement with donors. Both of the Governor’s opponents in 2002 made this scandal an issue; but he still easily won reelection, taking 57 of the state’s 62 counties.
Two twentieth century Governors are venerable saints. Al Smith is still revered at the Catholic dinner that honors his name and hosts America’s top political and business leaders. When he unsuccessfully ran for President in 1928, the chief objection was his religion, and one objecting Protestant preacher alleged he committed the mortal sins of dancing the “bunny hug, turkey trot, hesitation, tango, Texas Tommy, the hug-me-tight, foxtrot, shimmy-dance… and skunk-waltz.” He may have come through the ranks of the Tammany machine, but he was a reformer who earned the ire of the party bosses.
FDR came to the governorship through the Al Smith wing of the Democratic Party. As a young state senator he vocally opposed the Tammany bosses, but later recognized the need to warm up to them as he ran for Governor. When he eventually sought the presidency, there were attempts to tie him to the corruption then prevalent in New York City government; but the charge fell flat.
Finally there is the elder Cuomo, a man who led the polls going into the 1992 presidential primary, but made a last-minute decision not to enter the race. That year, and during the lead up to the 1988 race, Cuomo faced persistent rumors of his family’s Mafia connections, none of which were ever proven or substantiated.
Yet Mario Cuomo may not have needed mob thugs to succeed, so long as he had his son, Andrew, by his side. The younger Cuomo’s reputation as a bully and tough-guy date back to his days on his dad’s campaign and in Washington during the Clinton Administration. But unlike his father, the rumors about Andrew’s corruption are substantiated by a series of indictments, convictions, and ongoing investigations.
One of the recent criminal convictions is personal, the other is business. Joe Percoco was the Governor’s right-hand-man; his consigliere; his enforcer. He was someone Andrew had described as “his father’s third son.” His bribery conviction stemming from his role at the top of the state’s bureaucratic pyramid is particularly stinging; and more so since the Governor pathetically claimed his name didn’t come up at the trial. It was actually mentioned 136 times.
The Kaloyeros and Howe convictions were all business to Andrew Cuomo. However, the business was that of taking his signature economic development scheme, rigging bids, and rewarding those who donated to his campaign with lucrative state contracts. Perhaps this is the anomaly the Governor hopes you think it was, but his $31 million campaign war chest is built on donations by similar donors with similarly lucrative state business.
There is now an ongoing federal investigation of ‘pay-to-play’ involving the Crystal Run Healthcare, and shockingly, Cuomo refuses to return the $400,000 in donations he received from its owners and affiliates. This may just be par for the course, as it turns out that his top twelve donors this campaign cycle, from which he has amassed $3.1 million, all have significant business with the state and have been the beneficiaries of taxpayer ‘generosity.’
No list of the current administration’s corruption could be complete without mentioning the Moreland Commission Scandal. The governor empanelled in independent inquiry into state corruption in 2013; but then sparked a federal investigation into his 2014 disbanding of it once it had began digging into Cuomo’s cronies within the administration.
Finally, in any other administration, the news that the FBI is investigating the Governor’s practice of hiding employees in the payrolls of public authorities; or that he is violating, in plain sight, the ban on his appointees donating to his campaign; or that his campaign aides and their families are making hundred of small dollar donations so that it dishonestly seems he has grassroots support; would each, on their own, be considered a bombshell. But in the most corrupt administration in 100 years, these stories do not even make the front page. Pathetic.