Preet Bharara, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, says corruption is a problem for everyone and causes people to suffer.
Bharara told a group of mayors Monday afternoon at the Hilton Albany that they “can’t afford to have corruption” and that it causes “people in your communities to suffer.”
“This is a problem for you,” Bharara said at the New York Conference of Mayors’ Winter Legislative Meeting. “Your people suffer. They suffer a loss of faith, higher taxes, a loss of services and opportunities.”
Bharara is well known in New York state for his office’s charges against former longtime Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and ex-Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos. Silver was convicted in November, and Skelos and his son were convicted in December.
Bharara has not made a public appearance in Albany since the Silver and Skelos corruption trials.
Bharara’s speech on Monday didn’t focus on those two high-profile cases. Instead, Bharara talked about the importance of oversight and transparency among municipal leaders.
He said cracking down on corruption is important because “it’s at the heart of protecting our democracy.”
“The point is to help achieve transparent government,” Bharara said. “The point is not just to punish politicians who have broken the law, but to help improve a political system that is broken down.”
Bharara started his speech by saying that his office prosecutes “many of Albany’s bad apples” and also prosecutes municipal workers.
“On occasion we have arrested and prosecuted mayors, too,” he added.
Bharara addressed the mayors, saying he is “above politics” but that “we share some things too.”
“We want the same thing — a government that works and a government that makes the lives of our citizens better,” he said.
He stressed that things cannot get done in the midst of corruption and scandals.
“You have so many immediate problems to address and so many concrete issues,” he said. “They are pragmatic and focused — like vacant properties, the rehabilitation of infrastructure and streetlights.”
Bharara said what happens in Albany trickles down to cities and villages because legislators determine things like the state budget and education aid along with money for public safety, transportation and health.
“Many of our cases that have been brought to our office provide some glimpses of what can go wrong when corruption seeps into government,” he said.
Bharara pointed to a case a few years ago of former Assemblyman Eric Stevenson, who was charged by Bharara’s office with accepting bribes in exchange for legislation.
Stevenson, a Democrat from the Bronx, was convicted and sentenced to three years in prison in May 2014.
Bharara said Stevenson’s actions negatively affected the South Bronx after he helped build an adult day care center in his district and also introduced legislation for a three-year moratorium on the opening of competing centers.
“Practical and pragmatic things cannot fully come to pass if the democratic process is broken and the democratic process has become a laughingstock,” Bharara said. “Politics may be inevitable, but corruption may not be, and indeed it must not be.”
Bharara said a political system that can’t fix or reform itself is unable to address long-term problems that New York’s mayors are facing in their cities and villages.
“Now think about how much more that difficulty is if compounded by corruption that seems to happen in too many places,” he said.
Bharara ended his speech giving the mayors three points of advice:
1. Demand good government.
2. Be vigilant.
3. Think big.
“I hope you have big plans for transportation, education, infrastructure and quality of life,” he said.
Bharara started his speech noting Bruce Springsteen’s concert at the Albany Times Union Center on Monday evening, joking that he would like to attend.
“If any of you have tickets, I’m perfectly prepared to subpoena them,” he said.
After the mayor’s conference, Bharara attended the swearing-in for new Chief Judge Janet DiFiore, the former Westchester County district attorney, at the Court of Appeals, along with Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
Bharara also spoke on WAMC radio with Alan Chartock later in the afternoon at The Linda in Albany.
The mayor’s conference on Monday also welcomed other speakers including Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb and state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli.
Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy and Binghamton Mayor Rich David also spoke during the conference about how high-tech streetlights could generate savings and improve quality of life.
Reach Gazette reporter Haley Viccaro at 395-3114, firstname.lastname@example.org or @HRViccaro on Twitter.