Bharara again, with feeling: Corruption is ‘rampant’ in New York

Bharara. (Azi Paybara via flickr)
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For the second time in three days, a member of the New York State legislature was arrested on bribery and corruption charges.

"It becomes more and more difficult to avoid the sad conclusion that political corruption in New York is indeed rampant," said U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, and "that a show-me-the-money culture in Albany is alive and well."

Assemblyman Eric Stevenson was arrested today, with the charges against him compiled with the help of yet another assemblyman, Nelson Castro of the Bronx northern Manhattan, who cooperated with investigators after being indicted in an unrelated 2008 incident.

Both men are Democrats.

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Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has called for Stevenson to resign. He didn't have to ask Castro, who has already announced that he's stepping down, as part of his agreement with the U.S. attorney for the Southern District and the Bronx district attorney, Robert Johnson. 

Stevenson allegedly took a bribe of more than $10,000 from three men looking for his help in expediting the opening of adult day care facilities and in passing a moratorium on similar facilities nearby.

Bharara said one of the payments to Stevenson was made "in a bathroom in a hotel in Albany."

According to undercover recordings of Stevenson, the Bronx lawmaker is alleged to have said, "Bottom line, if half of the people up here in Albany was ever caught for what they do, it would probably be in jail."

Bharara, speaking to reporters, said that quote underscores how pervasive corruption is in Albany: "That is Stevenson talking about this own colleagues."

Bharara said it's reasonable for the public to wonder "how many other pending bills were born of bribery, and worse, how many passed bills were born of bribery. How about items on the budget? How much of the work of the city and state government is tarnished by tawdry graft?"

He went further, taking the somewhat unusual step of criticizing other state political figures for remaining silent in the face of what he said was widespread and obvious corruption and illicit behavior.

"What has been perhaps most disheartening," said Bharara, "is the deafening silence of the many individuals who over the course of this investigation and many investigations saw something and said nothing. They learned of suspicious and potentially criminal activity being conducted in the halls of the capitol and elsewhere and they said nothing. No one made a call. No one blew a whistle. No one sounded the alarm."

At the press conference, I asked Bharara to answer his own question: how many laws and pieces of the state budget did he think were born of the kind of activity he's accusing Stevenson of performing?

"Twenty-six," he deadpanned, prompting some laughter among reporters. "I can't quantify a number. Common sense tells you … it makes you wonder how much other stuff is out there."

On Tuesday, Bharara announced the arrest of State Senator Malcolm Smith of Queens in a wide-ranging political corruption scandal. In that case, Smith is alleged to have bribed Republican officials in New York City to allow him to run in the Republican mayoral primary without changing his party registration. A cooperating witness in that case is also tied to two other Rockland County officials accused of bribery.

Smith was allegedly going to help steer state funds to land deal that would have profited those two officials.

Also arrested as part of Smith's alleged mayoral plot was City Councilman Dan Halloran of Queens, a Republican. In addition to taking cash payments to help Smith get into the Republican primary, Halloran is also accused of taking cash payments and contributions from "straw donors" in exchange for steering up to $80,000 in member items from the New York City budget.

Both Smith and Halloran have denied any wrongdoing.