The federal prosecutor who charged two New York state legislators in separate bribery cases this week said he can’t clean up Albany alone and urged leaders to change a pervasive culture of “show-me-the-money” politics.
Top state officials promised to keep enforcing anti-corruption laws, though one legislator ensnared this week, Assemblyman Eric Stevenson, was secretly recorded reciting recent punishments ranging from two to seven years in prison, noting some were far softer than others.
U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara questioned how much of the work of both state and city government “is tarnished by tawdry graft” while announcing probes landing six politicians in handcuffs and forcing a seventh from office. He promised to keep making arrests but said public corruption in New York “is more than a prosecutor’s problem.”
“Where does all this serious evidence of pervasive public corruption leave us? Where do we go from here? What are we to do?” Bharara told a news conference Thursday. Two days earlier, he told reporters: “Putting dirty politicians in prison may be necessary but it is not sufficient.” He said it’s “time for others to step up also.”
Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Friday: “We need a lot of reforms going forward. We need better people running for office. ... We need better laws for the state prosecutors in this state so they have laws that match the federal laws, and we have more prosecutors who are empowered to actually bring the case.
“We have to get the money out of politics because that’s the root of all of it,” Cuomo said in a WOR radio interview, citing campaign finance and electoral reform. “You look at a lot of these people who go run for office, on both sides of the aisle, Democrats and Republicans, you shouldn’t be able to or you shouldn’t have to buy your way onto the ballot. Rich men do it legally. Other people have done it illegally.”
Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, a former state senator, said Friday, “There is no question that Albany’s culture of corruption needs to be cleaned up. Year after year, we’ve seen a parade of scandals that have given voters the sense that the system is rigged.”
Schneiderman’s office recently investigated state Sen. Shirley Huntley, convicted of a federal felony for embezzling from a nonprofit she helped establish as well as a state charge for creating false documents in an attempted cover-up.
The office, which also monitors charities and nonprofits, declined Friday to disclose how many other legislators it is investigating for possibly improper financial ties to the nonprofits to which they funnel state grants.
“The intersection of elected officials and nonprofits has been a hotbed of corruption, and these relationships are far too common,” Schneiderman said.
Bharara all but taunted the Albany political establishment and those who control it in announcing Thursday’s arrest of Stevenson, accused of accepting more than $22,000 in cash bribes to help four businessmen with a Bronx adult care center. The government said Stevenson went so far as to propose a bill to create a monopoly for the newly opened center that caters to the elderly and the disabled. His lawyer said he will be vindicated.
“Given the allegations in today’s case, how many other pending bills were born of bribery?” Bharara asked. “And worse, how many passed bills were born of bribery? How about items in the budget? How much of the work of city and state government is tarnished by tawdry graft?”
According to court documents, Stevenson said in recorded conversations, “If half the people up here in Albany was ever caught for what they do ... they ... would probably be in the same place” as former state Comptroller Alan Hevesi, who resigned in 2006 and pleaded guilty to corruption charges in 2011.
He said Hevesi was “cut a break” with his two-year sentence and could have faced more prison time, while former City Councilman Miguel Martinez got five years in prison for taking $106,000, asking if he wasn’t made an example. Stevenson cited mixed penalties in other recent public corruption sentences.
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, longtime leader of that chamber’s Democratic majority, didn’t respond to a request for comment Friday on what else Albany needs to fight corruption and whether he plans anything.
Scott Reif, spokesman for Sen. Dean Skelos, the Senate’s Republican leader, said the senator will be working with Cuomo and the Assembly “to root out corruption so New Yorkers have a government they can be proud of.”
“While no legislation would prevent someone from committing corrupt acts, using one’s public office for personal gain is never acceptable,” Reif said.