Vincent Leibell, certified Monday as an unambiguously crooked politician, was well aware by late fall that federal investigators looking into public corruption had hit pay dirt with his office. We now know that while Leibell was running for county executive of Putnam, a race he won in November, he also was running from the truth. The latter finally overtook him in the frigid morning, when he pleaded guilty to two charges of corruption, shredding any doubt about the ex-senator's place in the county's history of political infamy. The man long regarded as the most powerful politician in Putnam has now been revealed as a mong the dirtiest — and going back to 2003. He pleaded guilty to charges that he pocketed $43,000 in kickbacks from attorneys doing business with the Putnam Community Foundation, the nonprofit senior-housing organization Leibell funded through legislative grants. He joins a growing list of state lawmakers who have succumbed to the slack oversight and, perhaps, the sense of entitlement associated with so-called member items, the taxpayer-funded grants doled out by legislators. Sen. Pedro Espada, D-Bronx and Westchester, gained widespread attention in 2010 for allegedly siphoning off millions from a health-care concern funded with member-item funds. Espada was defeated in a September primary and still faces a bevy of inquiries. Leibell won his primary and general elections with relative ease.
"Someone make it stop!" the good-government group NYPIRG — New York Public Interest Research Group — said in a statement released after Leibell entered his guilty pleas. "The governor and legislators should not hide behind this time of transition and their 'lame duck' status. It would be truly lame for them to duck ethics reform when yet another scandal confronts them and further antagonizes the public. The time to act is now." In recent years, legislators have tightened reporting and disclosure rules for member items, but those changes hardly go far enough. Legislators still manage to turn what should be arm's- length relationships with recipient organizations into opportunities for individual financial enrichment. Real reform would do away with member items altogether: worthy causes would be made to compete for funding, just as other pressing needs must. But no package of reforms would protect the public from those truly committed to abusing their trust. "Business is not slow" in the corruption- fighting department, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said. According to court documents, Leibell engaged in a transparently clumsy deceit aimed at covering up his demand and receipt of kickbacks. He was caught on hidden microphones issuing instructions on how the deceit should be masked. "You and I say there was never any cash relationship. Period. ... Since you and I are in agreement, it didn't happen." But it did, again and again, as Leibell's guilty pleas made plain. Leibell also addressed the corruption case when he appeared before the Editorial Board in September, along with Putnam Legislator Mary Ellen Odell, his opponent in both the primary and general election. Odell hinted at the scandal now unfolding, saying: " There is something abuzz in Putnam County." Leibell, for his part, denied any wrongdoing and spoke glowingly of the work of the Putnam Community Foundation. They were just more lies on top of the others.