By Sydney H. Schanberg
New York Newsday, February 3, 1987
The conviction last week of a top Queens politician for creating no-show jobs in the State Legislature and using the money to pay the salaries of the secretaries in his private law firm brought back some memories of an earlier era in Albany and of such of its inhabitants as “Gravy Train” MacDonald.
MacDonald was famous in the conflict-of-interest community — not for riding the gravy train, but for exposing it. His full byline was Walter V. MacDonald and it appeared in the late World-Telegram. He was a colorful part of this reporter’s apprenticeship.
This was two decades ago, and Walter was educating us with pungent stories about patronage appointees who never had to show up for their so-called jobs and collected their checks by mail — freeloaders he would describe as “people who couldn’t find their way to Albany with a seeing-eye dog.”
When legislators saw Walter’s robust figure striding toward them, they knew it was trouble coming. One afternoon, in the well of the Assembly chamber, Walter approached a Queens hack who is still an assemblyman and told him of his discovery of the legislator’s nepotism — he had slipped his father onto the staff of the State Senate post office. The assemblyman pleaded for a compassionate reprieve; he said his mother had died not long before and his father was at loose ends and needed something to do. Walter was touched. He told the hack he’d make an exception in his case — he’d hold the story for two days. Within 24 hours, the father was off the Senate payroll.
But Walter wasn’t just an ethical avenger stalking the corridors of the Capitol. He did solid research. There was the time when he was digging into the payroll records of the joint legislative commissions, rich archaeological repositories of no-show political dinosaurs. He came across goodies by the dozens.
One was particularly savory — a woman who not only never came to Albany but no longer lived in New York State. He telephoned her in her new residence, Ormond-By-The-Sea in Florida. She didn’t suspect a thing. Walter told her he was doing a story on all the wonderful legislative commissions and he understood she was on the marine and fisheries one, wasn’t that correct? “I think that’s the name of the commission,” she replied cheerfully, “but let me go and make sure. The check just arrived and it’s in the kitchen.”
I supposed my motive for telling you these tales of Walter MacDonald, who is now retired, is to poke at a question that has been asked frequently during the last year of corruption scandals and court trials: Has much changed over the years? Is the state of political ethics just as parlous now as it was in the “old” days?
To attempt a simple answer would be foolish. How to measure and compare such things? The flawed answer is that government systems and procedures have changed, and thus the methods of corruption have correspondingly changed — to keep up with things, you might say.
But is there more sleaze these days than before? It’s a question for philosophers.
The surface sense of what’s oozed out of late in New York City is that the dollar amounts of the killings to be made are quantum leaps beyond those of the past, but at the same time the money seems to be controlled and kept by a select, few sharks at the top rather than being spread around somewhat among the little people of the political machine, in the old-fashioned way.
About the Legislature specifically, I think it’s fair to say that the quality of the legislators and staff has risen over the years. They are justified in saying, as they often do, that they have become more “professionalized.” And, yes, the cronyism and hacks were more blatant and brazen two decades ago.
Yet there is plenty of opportunity for graft and waste in the Albany of today, and therefore the actuality is certainly there in some degree, too. The only question is, how much? The Legislature’s payroll has grown enormously — more than 5,000 employees (nearly as large as Ormond-By-The-Sea, pop. 6,002). And the legislative budget has swollen in the last decade from $34 million to $122 million.
At the recent “no-show” trial of the Queens politician, Richard Rubin, we heard Kenneth Shapiro, the Assembly’s chief counsel, testify that there are no formal rules governing the hiring of Assembly employees. Also, he said, no guidelines exist to control how the 150 members use their employees — i.e., the amount of work they perform and where they perform it. All of this is left to the individual legislator.
If the elders of the Legislature — Melvin Miller in the Assembly and Warren Anderson in the Senate — really want to professionalize their image with the voting public, they should stop making negative noises about the special commission Gov. Mario Cuomo has named to investigate and dramatize corruption in the city and state. It’s the “state” part the leaders don’t like, so they’ve been muttering about trying to block funding for the inquiry.
They don’t want outsiders taking too hard a look at the Legislature. It makes one wish that Walter MacDonald were back at his typewriter in Albany.