U.S. Attorney Warns Crooked New York Pols to Watch Their Backs
NEW YORK — U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara sent a shot across the bow of Albany on Thursday, warning New York's corrupt politicians that they should be living in fear that their colleagues were working with authorities.
Bharara once again condemned the "pervasive corruption" of Albany as he announced that Bronx Assemblymen Eric Stevenson had been charged with selling the most basic functions of his office in exchange for envelopes stuffed with cash.
The charges come just days after state Sen. Malcolm Smith was charged in a wide-ranging corruption scam that alleges he tried to bribe his way on to the Republican ballot for mayor. Also charged in that case were Councilman Dan Halloran, head of the Bronx Republican party Joseph Savino and vice-chairman of the Queens Republican party Vincent Tabone, investigators said.
"If you are a corrupt official in New York, you have to worry that one of your colleagues is working with us and that your misdeeds will be reported and reported to us, and that it will be that much harder to escape punishment," Bharara said.
Saying that members of the state Legislature were acting as "mercenaries," Bharara said the charges accusing Stevenson of drafting legislation in exchange for money that would aid co-defendants Igor and Rostislav "Slava" Belyansky, Igor Tsimerman and David Binman, were a violation of his "core duty."
"A legislator selling legislation," Bharara said. Stevenson even offered to let his co-defendants write the legislation, according to prosecutors.
"You can write the language down, basically what you want," Stevenson said on recordings.
As he did when announcing the charges against Smith, Bharara warned elected officials that his office would use all available means — including, in this case, the cooperation of a sitting assemblyman — to halt the corruption.
Bronx Assemblyman Nelson Castro cooperated in the investigation in return for the dismissal of felony perjury charges related to what he called a "civil" matter prior to his election.
Castro resigned his seat Thursday afternoon and said in a statement that he continues to cooperate with state and federal authorities in "this prosecution and in other investigations."
Another confidential witness, who was caught on a wire trying to bribe Castro, once ran for state office, according to the complaint.
Stevenson, a former legislative researcher for City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, was trying to help his co-defendants rig their bid to open and run adult day-care centers in the Bronx.
Most disturbing, Bharara said, was the "deafening silence" of the many elected officials and employees of state government who knew something was going wrong but looked the other way.
"No one made a call. No one blew the whistle, no one sounded the alarm," he said.
"What does it say about the culture and accountability of our system of government when officials are aware of criminal conduct around them and they remain silent?" he asked.
Bronx District Attorney Robert Jackson also said Thursday's charges were stunning, given the current political climate.
"Handing over to lay citizens who had an interest in the legislation the job of drafting a bill that clearly would only favor them rings out loud and clear that I'm interested in myself, not interested in the people of this state," Johnson said.
Stevenson was aware of the fact that there might be corruption probes going on. Bharara says he told the cooperating witness: "Be careful of those things man, recorders and those things. A lot of guys are working to put a lot of guys away man. Believe that."
Jackson said Stevenson failed to heed his own advice and characterized him as "someone who has ignored a message."
Stevenson allegedly made statements listing the sentences of other legislators who have been caught in graft but continued to move forward with the alleged scheme, Jackson said.
"Logic would say that other members of the Legislature have heard and seen what the consequences are if you do wrongdoing. But then sometimes logic is thrown out the window," Jackson added.
The new charges reverberated throughout the city's political landscape. One political staffer said texts were flying back and forth wondering what might be coming next.
Councilwoman Inez Dickens said she agreed with Bharara that "corruption should not be tolerated," but disputed his characterization of elected officials.
"Are you saying everyone from the governor down is corrupt? I take objection to that. There are a lot of well-meaning elected officials on the state, local and federal level," she said.
Thursday's indictment also called into doubt the fidelity of the thousands of pieces of legislation that pass through Albany, Bharara added.
"Given the allegations in today's case, how many other pending bills were born of bribery, and worse, how many past bills were born of bribery?" he asked. "How much of the work of the city and state is tarnished by tawdry graft?"