The recent spate of arrests and criminal investigations involving public officials has ensnared a high percentage of minorities in the state Legislature, leading some in the community to ask if black and Hispanic lawmakers are being targeted.
State Sen. James Sanders (D-Jamaica) decided last week that the question of conspiracy or corruption was far better-suited for an open, frank and free-wheeling debate before nearly 200 people at the Black Spectrum Theatre in Roy Wilkins Park in Jamaica.
A panel consisting of former Assemblyman Michael Benjamin (D-Bronx), student Betty Mahmud of the New York City Urban Debate League and Terryl Demendonca of the Misunderstood Youth Center argued that corrupt politicians come and are prosecuted in all colors and ethnicities.
Attorney Richard Washington, student Tyler Anderson of the Debate League and Paul Nichols argued that the numbers and percentages of investigations run suspiciously and disproportionately high among minority legislators. Nichols, a member of Sanders’ staff, said he was speaking for himself and not the senator.
The moderator was Prof. Leonard Baynes of the St. John’s University School of Law.
Washington said a look at the 14 state senators currently under investigation turns up seven African Americans.
And he also took issue with the release of names in a letter at the sentencing on May 9 of former State Sen. Shirley Huntley. Six minority state senators are on the list, as well as Councilman Ruben Wills (D-Jamaica).
While federal authorities have said only three people on the list are under investigation, he said all are now smeared by innuendo.
“If you do the crime, do the time — we’re not condoning corruption,” Washington said. “But if you are investigating, why publicize it? I’m a former prosecutor. The purpose of an investigation is to not let people know you are investigating. Why make that public?”
He believes the U.S. Attorney’s Office could have argued harder to keep the letter sealed.
As a counter to Huntley, and names like Sens. John Sampson (D-Brooklyn) and Malcolm Smith (D-Hollis) who have been arrested in recent weeks, Benjamin offered others.
“Seminerio. Kruger. McLaughlin. Biaggi. Stanley Simon and Stanley Freidman in the Bronx,” he said. “They were not targets of conspiracies. They were corrupt.”
Former Assemblyman Anthony Seminerio, he pointed out, died in federal prison while serving a six year sentence. Former Senate Republican Leader Joe Bruno had a conviction overturned on appeal.
“And former U.S. Attorney Rudy Giuliani made his name going after Italian mobsters,” he said.
Mahmud called the issue of race a red herring. Demendonca agreed. “If you are honest and on the straight and narrow, you don’t have to worry about what’s on those wiretaps,” she said.
Nichols said the conspiracy argument is not necessarily undermined by the arrests of Italian, Jewish and Irish politicians.
“Just use the same measuring stick across the board,” he said. “If that would happen, we wouldn’t be here having this debate.”
A show of hands in the remaining crowd at the end of the evening came down 27 to 24 in favor of the corruption argument.