A culture of kickbacks… and a 'Downton' makeover

Usborne in the USA

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The Independent Online

Dramatic doings are afoot in Albany, the state capital of New York, that have at last put a spotlight on its reputation as a town where it would seem that lining your pockets comes before serving the people. But let’s begin with the case of a Congressman in Washington with questionable taste in interior design.

Vanity, not greed, is the Achilles heel of Aaron Schock, 33, a Republican from Illinois, who is one of the more dashing denizens of Capitol Hill. He saw fit to kit out his office in the style of Downton Abbey and this week got into a dumb panic when a reporter came by and started snapping iPhone images.

The response was text-book what-not-to-do when the press shows up and pokes around. Recognising that images showing the royal red walls, gold sconces, black candles, gilded mirrors and sprays of pheasant feathers might not look good, a spokesman demanded the pictures be erased. 

What ensued was a PR train wreck. A group called Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington is demanding to know why the decorating firm – called Euro Trash – didn’t charge the Congressman for giving his digs the Grantham look.

Sometimes politicians merely bank on the press not paying attention. When aides to the New Jersey Governor Chris Christie discovered he and his family had been put up in rooms costing $30,000 by King Abdullah in Jordan after a trip to Israel, they merely prayed it would never leak out. It did, all over the pages of The New York Times this week.

So kudos to Sheldon Silver who, according to state prosecutors, spent his two decades as Speaker of the New York Assembly, not just accruing huge sums of money from kickbacks but also using his power to shut down all and any serious attempts to investigate malfeasance in Albany. Eyebrows shot up last spring when Governor Andrew Cuomo disbanded an outside commission he had created nine months before to investigate graft in Albany. But it turns out the evidence it had collected was passed on to the FBI which took up the investigation.

Mr Silver, a Democrat, was arrested on 22 January. Prosecutors said in a criminal complaint that over the years he had accepted $4m in kickbacks and bribes, some from a personal injury law firm which, for years, had been profiting from plaintiffs in asbestos cancer cases referred to it by a doctor in Manhattan at the behest of Mr Silver, who in return had been steering state funds to his office.

The US Attorney in New York, Preet Bharara, declared Albany a “cauldron of corruption”. He left no one in doubt that Mr Silver, who pending trial was replaced this week as Speaker but retains his seat, is not the only lawmaker he has had in his sights. 

The details of what Mr Silver is alleged to have pulled off – he has denied all charges – leaves me, and surely every other taxpayer in New York, profoundly disgusted, if not exactly surprised.