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Opinion

We the People: Slouching toward kleptocracy?

Pamela Harris, the Democratic assemblymember representing the 46th A.D.which covers Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights, Brighton Beach, Coney Island and Seagate, is the latest New York politician to join a not-so-exclusive club of disgraced, disgusting and greedy politicians who have betrayed their supporters and constituents. An indictment alleges that Harris stole public funds to pay for her own personal expenses before and after she was elected.

She was elected in 2015 after the Democratic incumbent in the 46th A.D. unexpectedly resigned. This allowed the Kings County Democratic Party to select a nominee for the special  election to fill the seat due to the timing of the resignation. Harris, with the backing of Assemblymember William Colton, State Senator Diane Savino, City Councilmembers Mark Treyger and David Greenfield, and Democratic District Leader Nancy Tong, was easily elected and in 2016, reelected.

She was well-known in Coney Island but she was less well-known in the rest of the district. She first gained attention as an advocate for homeowners seeking help for damaged properties as a result of Superstorm Sandy in 2012. She is now charged with 11 criminal counts including fraud, obstruction and witness tampering.

It is alleged she stole $25,000 from FEMA by lying that she had been forced out of her Coney Island home due to hurricane damage in 2012. It is alleged she submitted phony lease and rent documents for a house in Staten Island while she remained in her home and pocketed the FEMA money.

It is alleged she stole money from a nonprofit organization she controlled that was funded by the City Council. Prosecutors say that she used the money to pay her mortgage, to take vacations and to buy lingerie at Victoria’s Secret. If Harris was stealing public money in 2012 perhaps her backers can explain why she was such a good candidate in 2015.

The alleged fraud is ironic because, if true, she stole money intended to help the people of her district who were really devastated by Sandy. The alleged fraud is pathetic because, if true, she sold her soul for the price of a decent used car.

We need democratic and transparent elections in New York to keep the undeserving out of office. The special election process lets little-known candidates avoid scrutiny while they slither into elected office, which hurts society.

The Daily News suggested that when a seat becomes vacant, the rules should call for an open election so the most popular candidate is elected. It’s time to stop backroom deals that open the back door for the undeserving to sneak into office.

Harris has been credibly charged with crimes that are a gross betrayal of the public trust. The nature of the charges and amount of information contained in the indictment make it unlikely that Harris will be able to defend herself successfully against all of the charges. Why would she have felt comfortable to step into the spotlight of public office if she stole public money?

The conga line of politicians dancing from public office into the pokey seems never-ending. It is the arrogance of incumbency and the lack of an ethical review system that support the culture of corruption. It is so hard to get an incumbent out of office that it easy for incumbents to feel they are above the law.

In Albany and in Washington, D.C., we need ethics reform, we need money out of politics and we need term limits. The political culture is an environment in which arrogance and greed easily fester into corruption.

We need change and the only way it will happen is if the good people of New York get together and demand it. We need to elect individuals who promise to accomplish at least one reform and who promise to get out of office before the office can affect them.

If we do nothing our democracy is destined to become a kleptocracy.

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