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New York state: New hotbed of corruption after latest arrest?

Laws and LegislationPoliticsElectionsBusinessFinanceJustice SystemGovernment
Is the arrest of an NYC councilman the latest evidence of rampant corruption in New York?
New York state's budget process, which allows elected officials to direct funds to groups, cited as a problem
Since 2010, at least eight N.Y. legislators or their related charities have been caught up corruption cases

Chicago and its home state of Illinois may have a reputation for corruption in politics, with its long list of governors, aldermen and even a mayor who have been tossed in jail.

But some are wondering whether the Empire State is now giving the Land of Lincoln a run for its money.

On Wednesday morning, New York City Councilman Ruben Wills was arrested. He had been under investigation for allegedly not properly accounting for a $33,000 state grant awarded to a nonprofit he helps run.

Wills has been charged with grand larceny and faces up to seven years in prison, the office of New York Atty. Gen. Eric T. Schneiderman said.

Authorities say the councilman and family member Jelani Mills stole $30,000 in public campaign funds and charitable grant money and then attempted to cover their tracks. Wills is also accused of using campaign money to buy a $750 Louis Vuitton handbag from Macy's, as well as purchases at Nordstrom's and Century 21, a discount luxury department store.

Appearing in front of reporters at the courthouse, Wills said that he was innocent and that he would not resign his seat.

"This is America, and here you're innocent until proven guilty," he said.

The New York City Council says that it will prohibit Wills and his office from distributing city funds this year and instead will assign the task to other officials.

The arrest is only the latest in a steady stream of probes and arrests of New York state politicians. One out of every 11 lawmakers to leave office since 1999 has done so after being investigated for ethical or criminal violations.

"New York -- I would say -- is sort of middling to not so good on its potential for corruption," said Nicholas Kusnetz, with the Center for Public Integrity, which ranks states on their potential for corruption, with the highest-ranked states having the least potential for corruption, the best being No. 1.

According to this ranking system, New York comes in 37th with a "D" grade. Illinois is 11th and received a "C" while California is at No. 4, with a "B-" grade. The top spot belongs to New Jersey, with a "B+" grade.

In April, New York state Sen. Malcolm Smith, a Democrat, was arrested and charged with allegedly trying to buy a spot on the Republican ticket in the New York mayor's race; three Republicans and two Democrats were also arrested and charged with accepting bribes. Also last year, in separate cases, two state senators were charged with embezzlement.

Six weeks ago, the FBI raided the offices of Queens Assemblyman William Scarborough as the attorney general's office investigated whether he had abused travel funds.

So rampant is corruption in New York that Gov. Andrew Cuomo created a panel, The Moreland Commission, to investigate. It released a preliminary report in December recommending that the state have more transparency on bills that direct money to local groups, and the closure of loopholes that allow “virtually unlimited” campaign donations.

"In recent years, too many local and state elected officials, staff members, and party leaders have been indicted and convicted for offenses running the gamut of shame: bribery, embezzlement, self-dealing, and fraud," the report said. "Public corruption has become all too commonplace and has eroded the public trust and confidence."

But Cuomo disbanded the panel earlier this year as part of a budget deal; some have accused him of giving up on an initial goal of changing the culture of corruption in the state.

Both the state and New York City have budget processes that allow elected officials to direct funds to certain groups. In a sense, this is logical, as local elected officials know their districts and where money can be best spent. But that’s also led to politicians funneling money to political cronies and, in some cases, their own pockets.

Since 2010, at least eight New York legislators or their affiliated charities have been investigated, charged or convicted of stealing public funds.

"There hasn’t been any major overhaul that would address these issues," Kusnetz said.

Wills was once chief of staff to state Sen. Shirley Huntley, who pleaded guilty in two separate cases in which she improperly directed funds to nonprofits she had created.

Now, Wills is being accused of something similar. He was first investigated in 2012 after a $33,000 state grant was unaccounted for after being awarded to New York 4 Life, a nonprofit tied to Wills. According to the New York Daily News, those funds were earmarked by Huntley.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times

UPDATE

1:05 p.m.: This post has been updated to detail the charges against Councilman Wills.

This post was originally published at 11:59 a.m.

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