'A conversation that goes on at everybody's kitchen table'
State Senator James Sanders had planned an event called "Attack on Black Leaders: Corruption or Conspiracy?" long before the names of seven more black and Latino elected officials, plus two operatives, surfaced in connection with a corruption case.
News that former state senator Shirley Huntley had, in cooperation with the F.B.I., secretly recorded those officials and operatives only served to make the discussion more timely.
The past five weeks have seen three state legislators indicted, another two admit to wearing wires for federal investigators, and four more learn that they had been taped by their colleagues. All of them are black or Hispanic.
"There's a conversation that goes on at everybody's kitchen table," Sanders told me, referring to the string of corruption allegations made against African-American legislators in city districts. "Everybody is talking about these issues: Is this a conspiracy? is this corruption?"
"We're just not bold enough or brave enough to [ask about] it in public," he said.
The districts represented by most of these officials who have been publicly linked to accusations of wrongdoing suffer from chronic poverty, high unemployment, failing schools and higher crime rates than in better-off parts of the city.
A common response by these officials to legal troubles has been to appeal to the legitimate grievances of constituents by framing those legal troubles as attacks on the whole community by a neglectful, even hostile, establishment.
In 2005, when then-assemblyman and Brooklyn Democratic county leader Clarence Norman had a going-away party, a number of officials described the prosecution of Norman as an attack on the community.
"You know he’s not a thief," said Councilman Al Vann at the time. "You know he’s not a criminal. You know he’s being criminalized, OK? And you know the system has always criminalized us. You know we’ve never gotten justice in this system. … One day, we’ll get the system to reflect our values. That’s what politics is all about for us. That’s why you have to get involved, so that we can control the mechanisms of the system, so the system will be just. We don’t know how to be unjust. … We’re the morality of this country.”
Eric Adams, who is one of the officials who was recorded by Huntley, but who has not been accused of any wrongdoing, was there too.
At the time, he was the head of an organization called 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care, and had not yet been elected to the New York State Senate.
He said, of Norman's prosecution, "This is a test for us." He went on to define “us”: “Every person of color in this city, particular those who have any level of prominence, better understand they’re coming for my brother today. They’re coming for you tomorrow.”
Recent news of investigations and arrests have come in a torrent: State Senator Malcolm Smith was taken in, along with three (white) Republicans, for participating in an alleged bribe scheme; Assemblyman Nelson Castro announced he had worn a wire for four years as part of a deal to get leniency from federal prosecutors in his own perjury case, resulting in the arrest of Assemblyman Eric Stevenson of the Bronx; State Senator John Sampson was arrested, charged with siphoning off money from the sale of foreclosed homes.
And now the Huntley news: to gain leniency in her own corruption case, she recorded the officials and operatives, and then effectively named them as suspicious characters publicly, via that unsealed document from her lawyers.
Karim Camara, who succeeded Norman in the Assembly, and heads the New York State Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Legislative Caucus, told me yesterday that the impact of corruption scandals on poor residents "is more devastating. Those communities are traditionally disenfranchised" and have "more of a need for leadership."
Camara said any allegation of wrongdoing by public officials "deeply troubled" him, but noted, correctly, that the Huntley recordings had raised suspicions about a whole other group of officials on the basis, so far, of no actual evidence that they did anything illegal.
"Because someone is on the wire tap does not mean they're the target of an investigation," he said. "Because someone is a target does not mean they've been charged. And because someone has been charged, it does not mean they'll be convicted."
He said it was unfair to those elected officials to have their names released publicly (they were listed in an unsealed memo from Huntley's lawyers to the judge presiding over her case) without a transcript of their conversations, or at least, more context about what they said.
Camara also said there was a simple explanation that all of those elected officials recorded by Huntley were black or Latino: they're "part of her social circle, her network."
Camara said the dynamic there was no different than in corruption cases in the past in which white officials implicated other officials or operatives who were white.
"When Assemblyman Brian McLaughlin [of Queens] was charged with crimes, it was [former assemblyman Anthony] Seminerio" who later went down. Both McLaughlin and Seminerio are white. "With former state senator Carl] Kruger, it was a white lobbyist." (Richard Lipsky, who later got charged.)
Camara said the willingness of black and Latino constituencies to rally behind embattled elected officials was to expected, too.
Often, he said, there is a "mindset that this is an attack on" on the community as a whole, and there are "historic precedents" to support that concern. He referred to F.B.I. activities under J. Edgar Hoover "during the '60s and '70s to remove blacks who are vocal."
Sanders had expressed the same sentiment to me in our earlier interview.
But Camara, for his part, made it clear he didn't think there was any such deep conspiracy at work in the ongoing corruption investigations.
"Do I believe it happened in historically? Yes," he said. "Do I believe it happened in this instance? No."