U.S. attorney: New York has a corruption problem much bigger than Halloran and Smith

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U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara. (Azi Paybarah via flickr)
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Independent Democratic state senator Malcolm Smith tried bribing his way into the Republican mayoral primary and was in talks to give a plum job in his administration to a Republican councilman who was helping him, according to the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York.

The attorney, Preet Bharara, announced the arrest of six people in connection with the sweeping bribery and corruption scandal.

The unlikelihood of Smith winning a Republican primary, let alone a general election, didn't deter him, Halloran or two other Republicans, the Bronx County Republican chairman Jay Savino and Queens County Republican operative Vince Tabone, from seeking money in order to help Smith get onto the ballot without changing his party registration by acquiring what's known as a "Wilson Pakula" from at least three of the five Republican county committees in New York City.

"Malcolm Smith thought it was possible," said U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who announced the arrest of Smith and five others connected to the wide-ranging corruption scheme.

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Bharara repeatedly said the arrests today were emblematic of a broader problem in New York.

"Many may understandably fear that there is no vote that is not for sale, no office without a price and no official clean of corruption," he said.

In exchange for helping arrange meetings with Republican leaders, Halloran allegedly wanted to become a "deputy police commissioner" or "deputy mayor" in a Smith mayoral administration. "There were people involved in the scheme who thought it was a realistic possibility," Bharara said.

 

 

Separately, Halloran is also accused of steering $40,000 to $80,000 in discretionary member items to a company he thought was controlled by a wealthy contributor who in fact was an undercover agent. In exchange, Halloran is alleged to have received "straw donations" to his failed congressional campaign last year.

Halloran is running for re-election to his City Council seat in Bayside, a district that has elected Democrats and Republicans in the past.

Smith was overwhelmingly re-elected last year to his State Senate seat after Republicans redrew his district and helped him avoid a potential primary from James Sanders, a term-limited city councilman who later ran a primary and ousted Shirley Huntley (who was charged and later pled guilty to an unrelated corruption probe launched by the State Attorney General).

Smith later defected from the Democratic conference and joined the Independent Democratic Conference, which formed a power-sharing alliance with the Republicans in the State Senate. Later, the size of Smith's staff grew substantially, according to the New York Post.

At the press conference with Bharara this morning, the assistant director for the F.B.I. in New York, George Venizelos, said the cooperating witness and undercover F.B.I. agent working on the case "did not have to twist any arms. The defendants were eager to take bribes" and in at least one instance, "Tabone patted down the undercover" agent to see if he was wearing a wire to record their conversation.

Bharara said the "public corruption crisis in New York is more than a prosecutor's problem." He said locking up "dirty politicians" won't bring about a better government, and that that would require a real "change in the culture" in New York politics.

"What can we expect where there continues to be, even after a parade of politicians have been hauled off to prison, a lack of transparency, lack of self disclosure, a lack of self-policing, a lack of will and a failure of leadership," said Bharara. "What can we expect when transgressions seem to be tolerated and nothing seems ever to change?"

When asked by reporters to elaborate, Bharara declined to name specific people he thought should play a greater role in helping combat corruption. He also cited a policy against commenting on current federal of state laws.

I asked Bharara to elaborate on where he felt there was a lack of transparency.

"If you take a look at what the rules of disclosure are in New York, they are not as transparent as they are in other places," he said. "Often when people are putting through proposals for greater disclosure, those are opposed and I think people who care about making sure that the bad deed are punished and miscreants are punished, that more disclosure is better."

Governor Andrew Cuomo called the allegations "serious" and "very, very troubling. We have zero tolerance for any violation of the public integrity and the public trust."

Speaking to reporters upstate after a ceremonial bill-signing of the state budget, Cuomo said he hoped Smith was cooperating fully with the investigation.

In a statement, Smith's spokesman said he'd be vindicated once all the facts are made public. Republican mayoral candidate John Catsimatidis, who employed Tabone, said he was aware of the investigation for about a year and that his company and campaign have been cooperating fully with investigators.

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, a Democratic mayoral candidate, said the allegations against Halloran would be reviewed by the Council's ethics committee.

The State Republican Party's spokesman said they learned of the probe from news accounts this morning.