To the Editor,
Recently, my longtime colleague in the State Senate, Vinnie Leibell, pleaded guilty to federal charges against him. One of these charges was specifically related to member items, or legislative discretionary spending, used to set up a private not-for-profit organization to, among other things, fund and develop senior housing in Putnam County, a seemingly beneficial objective.
I was shocked and extremely disappointed to hear about these charges and the guilty plea. These charges underscore our immediate need to establish criteria for the distribution of member items, something for which I have long advocated. In addition to establishing standards, we must preclude a legislator’s ability to establish a not-for-profit entity using member items or state grants. I will introduce legislation with such a prohibition so that if member items continue to be part of our system, at least we can prevent their abuse. (For your information, no new member items were included in the 2010 budget.)
This is not the first time that member items have risen to the top as a critical element in criminal charges against a State Senator. I have always had a problem with our system of legislative pork, and have never taken member items, even when I was criticized for not doing so. Just last year, I introduced a bill with the support of good government groups, to overhaul the member items process. Now is the time to institute these reforms, which include oversight of the grants process and conflict of interest statements, as well as now disallowing legislators to set up private not-for-profit entities with this state money.
As public officials, we are public servants and individual corruption stains us all. I certainly hope we can learn from this unfortunate situation and better align our standards of operation on member items with the high standards we expect from all public officials.
Assemblywoman, 90th A.D.