N.Y. State Senator Caught Up In Bribery Probe

fromWNYC

Six politicians, including state Senator Malcolm Smith and a New York City councilman, were arrested Tuesday on charges of trying to buy a spot for Smith on the ballot in this year's New York City mayoral race. Smith has said he is innocent.

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New Yorkers woke up yesterday morning to the scene of politicians being rounded up by federal agents, arrested and taken to court. OK, it's New York City, this happens with politicians. But this time, the charges were pretty remarkable against a councilman and a powerful state legislator.

As Anna Sale reports from our member station WNYC, the Manhattan U.S. attorney says its evidence of pervasive corruption.

ANNA SALE, BYLINE: Six people were arrested and taken to federal court in New York on Tuesday: a powerful Democratic state senator, a Republican city councilman, two local GOP leaders and two suburban town officials. Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara says they're just part of the problem.

PREET BHARARA: But don't take my word for it.

SALE: Instead, he cited the words of Queens City Councilman Daniel Halloran, from secret FBI recordings.

BHARARA: Quote, "That's politics, that's politics. It's all about how much." And that's our politicians in New York.

SALE: These latest arrests are part of a wide-ranging federal corruption investigation that's been underway since at least 2011. The allegations bear some of the familiar hallmarks of dirty politics. There are meetings in hotel rooms, restaurants and cars. Taxpayer money directed to political supporter for a no-show job. Promises of state road funds for a sweetheart development deal.

And the standout as New York prepares to elect a new mayor this year: Envelopes of cash to local Republican leaders to get a candidate on the GOP primary ballot.

U.S. attorney Preet Bharara.

BHARARA: At the heart of the allegations is a sitting Democratic senator from Queens. It's Malcolm Smith who believed he could and should be the mayor of New York City.

SALE: Senator Smith was pursuing an outside strategy for mayor. He wanted to get on the Republican primary ballot, even though he's a Democrat. To do it, he needed the backing of local Republican leaders. A Republican city councilman, Dan Halloran, the Feds allege, helped arrange the bribes of party leaders. At the same time, prosecutors say, Halloran was taking bribes himself. He even sent text messages to ask for a bigger payoff after he directed city funds to an ally. Turns out, it was a cooperating witness for the government.

But as federal prosecutors detailed a scheme that stretched from New York City to Albany, those in political leadership acted swiftly to distance themselves from that broad brush.

Governor Andrew Cuomo called the allegations very serious.

GOVERNOR ANDREW CUOMO: I hope the investigation is thorough and speedy and gets to the facts. But it is very, very troubling. We have zero tolerance for any violation of the public integrity and the public trust.

SALE: Senator Malcolm Smith has lost his Senate leadership post in Albany. And his Democratic caucus leader has urged him to consider resigning. Council Speaker Christine Quinn, the leading mayoral contender, stripped Councilman Halloran of his committee assignments and blocked him from directing any discretionary funding.

Still, New York's current mayor, Michael Bloomberg, allowed that some of New York's trouble could be systemic. A registered independent, Bloomberg blamed party politics.

MAYOR MICHAEL BLOOMBERG: All of this comes out of the fact that we have partisan elections when cities aren't partisan. And partisan elections deprive the public of the right to pick their own leaders.

SALE: None of the six accused commented on their charges. Outside the federal courthouse where they were arraigned, Senator Smith's attorney Gerald Shargel said his client will plead not guilty if he's indicted and will not resign his seat in Albany.

GERALD SHARGEL: The allegations in this complaint do not tell the full story. I think there is much more to this story.

SALE: And more of that story will play out alongside this year's mayoral campaign in New York City. The defendants are now out on bail and they are scheduled to be back in court later this month.

For NPR News, I'm Anna Sale in New York.

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