One of Albany’s claims to fame is one that many of its residents aren’t that proud of.
“[Albany] is literally used as a synonym for corruption in headlines,” said Carolyn Stefanco, president at The College of Saint Rose.
Stefanco made that point as she welcomed a panel to discuss public corruption at the college Thursday night. The panel included famed federal prosecutor Preet Bharara, an esteemed Albany defense attorney and Albany Times Union Editor Rex Smith.
Right off the bat, Bharara said that a recent Supreme Court decision that tightened the definition of “official act” and overturned a corruption conviction against former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell didn’t shake his confidence in a pair of high-profile New York public corruption convictions. In the past year, Bharara, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, won convictions against both Dean Skelos, former state Senate leader, and Sheldon Silver, former Assembly speaker.
“We think beyond a question the kinds of things we alleged and proved in both cases . . . were squarely within what the McDonnell decision said was still a violaton,” Bharara said.
E. Stewart Jones, Jr., an Albany defense attorney who has defended public officials against corruption charges, said the McDonnell decision would make it more difficult for defendants to build arguments around the vagaries of corruption laws.
Rather, defense attorneys should focus arguments around whether an “official act” was influenced by the alleged bribery scheme.
“If you can make an argument that the action that was taken by a politician was going to be taken anyway . . . that’s an argument to be made,” Jones said.
Bharara and Jones also sparred over whether or not high- profile politicians or citizens are more likely to come in for prosecution.
“The higher the profile, the greater the risk of prosecution,” Jones said.
But Bharara shook his head as Jones made the point: “I don’t agree with that,” he said.
“I wouldn’t think you would,” Jones shot back.
Bharara and fellow federal prosecutor Grant Jaquith said they take seriously the impact that just the suggestion of a federal investigation or prosecution can have on the life of a potential defendant — regardless of how the case ultimately turns out.
They also said they didn’t want to substitute their judgment for the will of the voters, recognizing that allegations of public corruption can undermine confidence in the democratic system. But they argued that public officials must also live up to a high standard in their official roles.
“It may seem like it is a higher standard because more is expected of public officials,” Jaquith said. “That’s because of the access they have, sometimes unfettered access, to control funds [for public purposes].”
Federal Judge Loretta Preska, who has judged public corruption cases, summed up the discussion by pointing out the importance of faith in public officials and their actions — something at the foundation of the American system.
“The thought that animates much of what you heard tonight is the very, very sacred trust in our government . . . the abuse of power in public places really goes to the heart of our self-governance,” she said.