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A Look Behind The 3 Men In A Room Style Of Governing in New York State

(AP Photo/Mike Groll, File)

New York State Government is famous for its “three men in a room” way of doing business.  The three men are the Governor, the Assembly Speaker, and the Leader of the State Senate. 

This week there’s a new incarnation of the three men in a room.   

That’s because Republican Dean Skelos of Long Island resigned as leader of the state senate on Monday after being brought up on federal corruption charges.   He was replaced by a fellow Long Islander, Republican John Flanagan. 

Earlier this year, the Democratic Speaker of the Assembly, Sheldon Silver, gave up his leadership position after being brought up on federal corruption charges too.  He was replaced by Carl Heastie. 

All Things Considered host Mark Herz spoke with New York State Capitol reporter Karen DeWitt.  

Is this political upheaval unusual for New York?

I don’t think there’s ever been a legislative session where both the Assembly Speaker and the leader of the State Senate have had to resign their posts because they have been accused of running these huge corruption schemes. In this case, the U.S. Attorney had accused both of them of that and they had to leave mid-session, which has caused a lot of chaos in both houses. And, in both cases, they don’t want to leave, they can’t really believe they’re going to have to give up power and they kind of hang on for a week or ten days after their arrest or, in Skelos’ case, after he surrendered to authorities.  Finally, on Monday, we saw it all fall apart.  Skelos resigned his post; he’s going to stay in the Senate.  And the Senators, Republicans, chose another Long Island senator, John Flanagan, who in some ways is just a younger version of Skelos.

Those federal corruption charges came from Preet Bharara, the U.S. Attorney General for the Southern District of New York, and may also have come from the Moreland Commission files, the commission Governor Andrew Cuomo set up to investigate corruption...

That’s a very good point.  The Governor was getting angry with the legislature because they didn’t want to do ethics reform.  And he said, "well, I’m going to appoint this commission with subpoena powers from the Attorney General to look at all you guys," and then Cuomo mysteriously abruptly shut down that commission over a year ago as part of budget negotiations. But they’d already started looking at a lot of things and that gave the U.S. Attorney a lot of material.  Preet Bharara, the U.S. Attorney, has been very critical of the way government is run in New York State, which is essentially these three men in a room.  The two legislative leaders and the Governor, the go into private meetings, they figure out everything, they come out, they pass the bills. There’s not a lot of public input.  Now, two of those men are gone.  And there is speculation is Bharara looking for a trifecta here.  Is there going to be a third person? The Governor has had to hire a criminal defense attorney, not for him, he stresses, but for the office of the Governor.  We don’t feel like this is really over yet.  

It seems like a revolving door, some of these people who just got accused also replaced people who were accused of corruption. For New Yorkers, what hope do they have of cleaner government they deserve? They hear a lot of rhetoric and it seems like things don’t really change. 

It’s partly because there’s a lot of money in New York, in New York City.  And when you when you have a lot of money, you have temptation.  Especially the real estate industry. It’s very wealthy, and that’s where a lot of these accusations with Skelos and Silver have to do with, real estate donations, deals, special favors.  Some of the reform groups here say it’s time to end this so-called part-time legislature.  You should have a full-time legislature like Congress is.  Allow them to have very limited outside income, or don’t allow any outside income because that’s what gotten them into trouble. Or, at least what they’re accused of is monetizing their positions in the legislature to make money for themselves and their family.  

Mark is a former All Things Considered host and former senior editor with WSHU.
Karen has covered state government and politics for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 New York and Connecticut stations, since 1990. She is also a regular contributor to the statewide public television program about New York State government, New York Now. She appears on the reporter’s roundtable segment, and interviews newsmakers.