Monday, January 04, 2010

Sampson Finds the Silver Lining

Senate Leader Sampson

Joins a Tort Law Firm,

Just Like Speaker Silver

By Henry J. Stern
January 4, 2010


Thursday we bade a not so fond farewell to 2009, which was a frustrating year for advocates of good government. Today, we think about 2010, a new year, one that will see state-wide elections and the replacement or ratification of our four unelected officials: the governor, lieutenant governor, comptroller and junior senator. Control of the state senate will also be at stake, and the stakes are high: the 2010 senate will redistrict New York after the census is completed. If the Democrats hold their current majority, then they will, through redistricting, put the senate out of reach for Republicans and thus cement their monopoly on the legislature. Two parties sharing control are often better than one, if only because they cancel out each other's excesses, and strengthen the position of the executive and the judiciary.

Governor Paterson will deliver the State of the State address on Wednesday. He has a chance to make a good impression, but to do so he will have to stand up forcefully to the barons that run both houses. Actually the backbenchers are scarcely better than the barons. It is idle to believe that the leadership is throttling a significant demand for change of any kind, except for the junior members' desire for more equitable division of staff and larger member items.

No initiatives that the governor presents are likely to get far in the legislature, since neither party's cadre wants Paterson around much longer. There is some validity to their distaste, but most of it derives from self-serving motives and ungratified ambitions. He has been more financially rational than the Albany mob. Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown is part of it, as well as I do not like thee, Doctor Fell. Add to those negatives a touch of old-fashioned racism and discomfort at the disabilities of others.

That should not prevent the governor from presenting an ambitious program, hopefully without much new spending, and with sufficient specificity that people will take his plans seriously, or at least believe that some work went into their preparation. From past experience, that is unlikely to happen by Wednesday, but when the governor makes new proposals, they should probably be offered ad seriatim, or one by one. They are likely to receive more attention that way if they are sensible and practical.

He could look at the Blueprint for a Better Budget, prepared by a conservative consortium, to see if there is anything there he can support. Wisdom is not exclusive to either political party. Rule 29-T: "The truth lies somewhere in between."


The news that Senator John Sampson, the de facto Senate Democratic leader, has made an arrangement with a private law firm similar to that of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (you can find the story on p2 of today's Post, SAMPSON PLAYING A LAW-FIRM SHEL GAME by Brendan Scott) is an enormous disappointment, but should come as no surprise. The Post story begins:

"Move over, Sheldon Silver.

"Senate boss John Sampson (D-Brooklyn) has borrowed a page from the powerful Assembly speaker and become the second big-time Democrat to join a law firm with ties to the state's powerful trial-lawyers lobby, the Post has learned.

"Sampson, the state Senate Democratic leader, quietly accepted a job last month as 'counsel' to Belluck & Fox, a politically connected Manhattan law firm that specializes in asbestos litigation and that claims to have won $220 million in judgments.

"The new gig, which comes just six months after Senate Democrats elected Sampson to run the legislative chamber, bears striking similarity to the oft-criticized side job held by Silver (D-Manhattan).

"Like Silver, Sampson won't say how much his job pays. And, as is the case with Silver's firm, Weitz & Luxenberg, a founding partner of Sampson's firm, Joseph W. Belluck, sits on the board of the state Trial Lawyers Association.

"The potent advocacy group spends about $2 million a year on campaign contributions and lobbying expenses. Silver has repeatedly come under fire for aiding its decades-long winning streak in the Assembly."

The person who should feel most aggrieved by this arrangement is former Senate majority leader Joseph L. Bruno, who was convicted by a Federal jury of receiving money from phony consulting firms who received contracts from New York State. Unfortunately, although Mr. Bruno is an intelligent man (he has a B.A. in business administration from Skidmore College), he lacks a law degree. He was an infantry sergeant during the Korean War. If he had not served our country but gone to law school instead, he would by now have become a partner, or of counsel, in a law firm. The payments he received for his good offices could have been laundered as legal fees.

How can Sampson be blamed for doing what Silver has been doing for years, with impunity? Should he not have equal opportunity to profit from his office? His services may, in fact, be redundant because no one can surpass the Assembly speaker in political effectiveness. Nonetheless, in the interest of fairness, the Belluck law firm retained its own voice in the Senate. One never knows when a back-up will be needed, or when the work will expand beyond the capacity of a single platoon of negligence lawyers.

The law prohibits legislators from transacting business with state agencies, but we cite Rule 30-C-2: "Theres more than one way to skin a cat." Rule 30-C-1 also has some relevance: "When the cats away, the mice will play." One more rule comes to mind here: Rule 21-O: "One hand washes the other."

In too many ways, greed was the leitmotif of the New York State Legislature in 2009. With the news of the Senate Democratic leader finding gainful employment with an asbestos litigation firm, there are precious few reasons to believe that 2010 will be any different. Omnia vincit gelt.

You should observe that we are not writing about secret transactions, concealed arrangements or silent payoffs. We are not yet investigative reporters. What we tell you has often been published elsewhere, or is compiled from required reports. But that is where the process ends. People know what is happening, but so far have been unable to do anything about it. Fortunately, the city's newspapers have repeatedly published strong editorials on the shame of the state. They are in agreement on this issue.

Polls indicate that the public holds the Legislature in very low regard. But, over the years, reform efforts have consistently failed. In 2009 the Senate reached a nadir with its coups and counter coups, in which the plotters were handsomely rewarded for their treachery toward their peers, just like other successful predators, most of the pirates on the Indian Ocean and the creators of toxic instruments on Wall Street, some of whom bet against their own clients, who were relying on them for financial guidance.

Yet we start 2010 with hope. 2009 was a relatively bad year for incumbents in New York State, ask the county executives. Will 2010 bring us to the O.K. Corral? Will Albany become Armageddon, or Waterloo, or Ragnarok? If so, who will prevail?

StarQuest #634 01.04.2010 1166wds

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