QUEENS — Power-hungry state Sen. Malcolm Smith schemed with a Queens councilman and GOP bosses to build a "corridor of corruption" in an ambitious attempt to line their pockets with cash and get him elected the mayor of New York City, federal authorities said Tuesday.
In a brazen betrayal of public trust, the Democratic senator hatched a plot to bribe Councilman Dan Halloran, the head of the Bronx Republican party Joseph Savino and the vice-chairman of the Queens Republican party Vincent Tabone, investigators said. Two Rockland county officials — Spring Valley Mayor Noramie Jasmin and her deputy Joseph Desmaret — are also accused of a role in the far-reaching scheme.
The alleged corruption stretched from the city to Albany and involved $80,000 in payoffs and shady deals in restaurants and cars — all in an effort to win the support of Republican leaders so Smith could run on the party's ticket in this year's mayoral race, according to investigators.
"At the heart of allegations is a sitting Democratic senator from Queens. Malcolm Smith believed he could, and should, be the mayor of New York City. And who in the service of that ambition tried to bribe his way to a shot at Gracie Mansion," said Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, whose office brought bribery and fraud charges against the alleged crooked pols.
On Tuesday afternoon the six were arraigned together in federal court in White Plains before Judge Lisa Margaret Smith. The judge ordered bail set at $250,000 for five of the defendants. Desmaret's bail was set at $150,000.
The six were ordered to surrender their passports and not to travel outside the city or Rockland county.
Smith — once the president of the state Senate — and Halloran had been hauled away in handcuffs from their Queens homes early Tuesday morning.
The senator, who represents Queens Village, St. Albans and Jamaica, is accused of conspiring in November 2012 with a cooperating witness and an undercover FBI agent posing as a wealthy real estate developer to bribe city Republican leaders in order to win Wilson-Pakula certificates.
The certificate means a party has given its blessing for a non-party member to run on its ticket for a citywide office. Smith needed three of the counties to run on the Republican line for mayor.
"He was a Democrat but believed his best shot was running as a Republican," Bharara said.
In exchange for their help and ponying up the bribe money, Smith is accused of promising to use his position in the senate to steer $500,000 in state funding to a development project in Spring Valley that the cooperating witness and the undercover agent claimed they were planning.
Bharara described Halloran — a Republican — as having "quarterbacked" the ploy get Smith on the GOP ticket.
Beginning in September, the cooperating witness met with Halloran, agreeing to support the councilman's run for Congress in exchange for getting an associate a job and steering $60,000 to $80,000 in City Council discretionary funding to hire him and the undercover agent as consultants.
After the November meeting with Smith, the cooperating witness and the undercover agent enlisted Halloran to act as a middleman to persuade the Bronx and Queens party bosses to sign off on the certificates, according to a criminal complaint.
Halloran, an ex-police cadet, is accused of accepting nearly $40,000 in cash for his services and demanding a role as deputy NYPD commissioner or deputy mayor in a Smith mayoral administration. He also received $6,500 in straw donor contributions, the complaint says.
On Valentine's Day, Tabone met with the undercover FBI agent at a restaurant and accepted $25,000 for his support, the complaint states. He was promised $25,000 more if he came through with the certificate, according to the complaint.
Savino came cheaper. That same day the FBI agent met Savino at a Manhattan restaurant and later handed him $15,000 in a car, according to the complaint. He was allegedly promised another $15,000 after the certificate was squared away.
On March 21 the witness and FBI agent updated Smith on their progress in his Albany office. By then the senator had grown impatient and snapped when the undercover and the witness mentioned Tabone and Savino were looking to be paid more, according to the complaint.
Smith said that neither party leader would receive any more bribes until he got an endorsement, the complaint says.
"I'd say, if I even give you a nickel more, you'd have to stand on the Empire State Building and drop every person you endorsed and hold Malcolm up and say he's the best thing since sliced bread," Smith said, according to the complaint. "Matter of fact, he's better than sliced bread."
Jasmin and Desmaret were both charged with fraud for voting in favor of the sale of town land for the purported real estate project by the witness and the undercover agent. In exchange for their votes, Jasmin was allegedly promised a share in the real estate firm, and Desmaret was given $10,500 in cash.
Smith, Halloran, Tabone, and Savino were all charged with wire fraud and participating in a bribery conspiracy.
A somber Smith, dressed in a dark blue suit, and Halloran, wearing a black long-sleeved shirt and jeans, stared at Judge Smith during their hourlong arraignment.
Halloran's lawyer, Dennis Ring, protested the severity of the judge's bail restrictions.
"These are serious charges, and pretrial supervision is not unduly intrusive," the judge responded.
Ring told reporters after the hearing that he would fight the charges.
"The councilman denies the allegations and looks forward to clearing his name and coming back to court," Ring said.
Smith's lawyer, Gerald Shargel, denied any wrongdoing by his client and said the senator would not step down from office.
''The allegations in this complaint do not tell the whole story. I think there is much more to this story," Shargel said. "I ask anyone reading this or reading about this to withhold judgment. We intend to enter a plea of not guilty if and when an indictment is returned.''
Democratic leaders in Albany moved Tuesday to strip the senator of leadership positions on committees.
In a statement, Smith spokesman Todd Shapiro said his boss would be "vindicated when all the facts in the case are revealed."
"The Senator has a record of 13 years of dedication, hard work and integrity to the people he serves in Queens," he added. "He has provided to the health, safety and well-being of the almost 20 million residents in New York."
Tabone's lawyer, Vito Palimieri, didn't buy the charges against his client.
"It seems to be they're trying to make the business of politics into a crime," Palimieri said.
Savino's lawyer yelled at reporters to get away.
The bombshell arrests cast a pall on the state's political system, which has already seen a slew of disgraced elected officials convicted of corruption in recent years.
"The charges we unseal today demonstrate once again that a show-me-the-money culture seems to pervade every level of New York government," Bharara said at a press conference earlier Tuesday.
"The criminal complaint describes an unappetizing smorgasbord of graft and greed, involving six officials who together built a corridor of corruption stretching from Queens and The Bronx to Rockland County and all the way up to Albany."
Bharara added that Halloran was caught on tape dismissing corruption as standard practice in New York City politics.
"Money is what greases the wheels. Good, bad or indifferent," Halloran allegedly told one of his cronies. "That's politics. It's all about how much, and that's our politicians in New York. They're all like that. You can't do anything without the f---ing money."
Additional reporting by Aidan Gardiner, Leslie Albrecht and Trevor Kapp