It Doesn’t Take a Weatherman…

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There are two prime negative stereotypes of elected officials. One is of the official who sticks their finger to the wind and goes whichever way it blows. The other is the official who takes a position based on who can fill their campaign coffers, their pockets, or pay for their own extreme home makeover. In New York, those two stereotypes are literally coming together as local elected officials line their pockets with largess from wind power companies as they help them erect wind turbines across the rural parts of the state.

Lured by state subsidies and buoyed by high oil prices, the wind industry has arrived in force in upstate New York, promising to bring jobs, tax revenue and cutting-edge energy to the long-struggling region. But in town after town, some residents say, the companies have delivered something else: an epidemic of corruption and intimidation, as they rush to acquire enough land to make the wind farms a reality.

The list of complaints from citizens about the political activity of the wind industry are long and are prompting an investigation from the offices of Attorney General Andrew Cuomo.

  • The town supervisor in Prattsburgh, NY cast the deciding vote to allow the condemnation of private land so that it can be used for a wind farm, after revealing that he had signed a lease with the was making money off of a land deal with the developer of the wind farm.
  • In Bellmont, NY, a town official pushed through new zoning laws to permit wind turbine towers and then left to take a job with a powerful wind company.
  • In Brandon, NY, after proposing a moratorium on new towers, an official explained that he was invited to the car of a wind company lobbyist and presented with gifts – two company polos and a pouch filled with cash.

These are only three of the twelve incidents being investigated.

While shocking to the communities that are involved in these local fights this kind of activity is nothing new when it comes to a new industry making headway. We’ve all heard the stories of corruption regarding the railroad companies in the late-19th century and the oil and energy companies in the 20th century. These stories of corruption come as new industries try to make their mark. Credit Mobilier, Tea Pot Dome, and even Jack Abramoff’s exploitation of the new Indian casino industry are the larger stories that often obscure the local level corruption that often drives the expansion of a new industry.

Samuel Huntington explained corruption as “the means of assimilating new groups into the political system by irregular means because the system has been unable to adapt sufficiently fast to provide legitimate and acceptable means for this purpose.” In recent years, alternative energy sources have become the newest, booming industry thanks to support from a wide range of groups from environmental organizations to energy companies investing in new technologies.

One key policy encouraging alternative energy industry expansion is government subsidies, which present companies with the incentive to build. Just look at this article about Colorado and wind energy. The dark side evident in rural New York isn’t shown in the article, but under the surface there are likely small events in local communities that tell a similar story.

Laws that criminalize the behavior seen in New York can only go so far. The bill is already passed, the regulations already made, and the investigation, trial, and conviction comes later. But the legislative framework created through corruption often still stands. Officials need to be punished for violating the public trust, but the most important steps can come before a bill even passes.

The easiest way to provide citizens with recourse prior to the passage of bills or rules based on undue influence is the revelation and public exposure of conflicts of interest and the activities of those trying to influence official actions. In other words: transparency. It’s a lot easier to get an official to recuse them self or to expose behind-the-scenes deals if that information is readily available. We all know the saying, so repeat after me, “Sunlight is the best of disinfectants.”

Economists regularly talk about alternative energy as being the next boom industry. It is often predicted that this new industry will grow the economy as the Internet boom of the 1990s did. Thanks to that Internet boom, government transparency is a boom sector of its own, trying to put ammunition in the hands of the public as they combat the efforts of emerging industries. As new companies try to influence official behavior, transparency efforts will work to expose that give and take.

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