The U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York is upping the ante in his fight against political corruption in the state, telling the governor’s Moreland Commission that his office will start going after the pensions of public officials who are convicted of crimes.
And an unscientific survey of elected officials from Queens elicited that legal changes and legal challenges will be forthcoming.
Speaking before the commission at Pace University in Manhattan on Sept. 17, Preet Bharara said his aim is a simple one.
“Convicted politicians should not grow old comfortably cushioned by a pension paid for by the very people they betrayed in office,” Bharara said in a copy of his testimony released by his office.
The commission was appointed this past summer by Gov. Cuomo following a spate of corruption charges against state and city officials in the preceding months.
“I understand the sentiment — people should not be rewarded for bad acts,” Assemblyman Bill Scarborough (D-Jamaica) said. “I think the United States Attorney will move forward, and I think there will be a legal test where this will be determined.”
Published reports quote Gov. Cuomo as saying there may be state constitutional concerns with Bharara’s proposal, a concern Scarborough shares.
Scarborough and state Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside), who said he is in favor of the idea, also believe that a 2011 law aimed at those elected after that year may be unclear in regard to Bharara’s efforts.
“If it’s not in existing legislation, I’ll introduce it,” Avella said. “Again, only if you are convicted. It’s absolutely a disgrace that you can abuse the public trust and still get a pension.” He said private pensions earned by those same individuals should not be subject to any bill he puts forth.
The most sweeping investigation prior to the Moreland Commission resulted in six arrests, including those of city Councilman Dan Halloran (R-Whitestone), state Sen. Malcolm Smith (D-Hollis) and Vincent Tabone, then the vice chairman of the Queens Republican Party.
Then-Bronx GOP Chairman Jay Savino also is charged, as are Noramie Jasmin, the mayor of upstate Spring Valley, and her deputy mayor, Joseph Desmaret. Published reports state that Jasmin lost her re-election bid in a primary this week.
Smith, a career Democrat, was charged with allegedly trying to bribe his way onto the Republican ballot in time for this year’s mayoral election by securing what is known as a Wilson-Pakula certificate from the city’s county Republican organizations allowing him to do so.
Prosecutors claim Halloran accepted bribes from an undercover FBI agent to coordinate Smith’s alleged scheme. He also allegedly promised tax dollars to assist a company the agent claimed to represent. Smith allegedly offered to secure state funding for a road construction project in Spring Valley.
The 2011 amendment passed in Albany allows the state to strip pensions from state officials who have been elected to office since that year if they are convicted of crimes.
The provision protects pensions of people previously convicted, such as former state Sen. Carl Kruger (D-Brooklyn), who is serving a seven-year prison term for corruption; and former Assemblyman and city Comptroller Alan Hevesi of Queens, who served more than a year for actions taken while serving as state comptroller.
But Bharara told the commission that his office already has filed the paperwork to go after the pensions of Smith and Assemblyman Eric Stevenson (D-Bronx), who was arrested on corruption charges this past spring, should they be convicted.
Published reports say Halloran, too, could be targeted under Bharara’s new procedure if he is convicted in court.
“Our primary mission is to address and undo injustice — and, in the public corruption context, a galling injustice that sticks in the craw of every thinking New Yorker is the almost inviolable right of even the most corrupt elected official, even after being convicted by a jury and jailed by a judge — to draw a publicly funded pension until his dying day,” Bharara said.
Halloran’s attorney, Vinoo Varghese, said in an email that it was inappropriate for Bharara to speak about Halloran because he has not committed any crime. Smith’s lawyer could not be reached for comment.
But if they or their clients are inclined to take Bharara’s testimony as posturing or an idle threat, there is his record to consider in political corruption cases since he was sworn into office in August 2009:
In December 2010, former state Senator and Putnam County Executive-elect Vincent Leibell pleaded guilty to tax evasion and obstructing a federal grand jury investigation. He was sentenced to 21 months in prison and fined $4,000. His former chief of staff served four months following a guilty plea.
Kruger in December 2011 pleaded guilty to charges in which federal prosecutors alleged he took more than $500,000 in return for political consideration, much of it connected to the hospital and healthcare industry.
Hospital administrator David Rosen was convicted at trial and sentenced to three years. Lobbyist Richard Lipsky, hospital administrator Dr. Robert Aquino, healthcare consultant Solomon Kalish and Kruger associate Michael Turano all pleaded guilty and received prison terms.
Former state Sen. Nicholas Spano (R-Yonkers) pleaded guilty in February 2010 to obstruction of justice and filing fraudulent tax returns. He was sentenced to a year and a day in prison and is now free.
Queens state Sen. Hiram Monserrate pleaded guilty in May 2012 to charges related to the misuse of more than $100,000 in discretionary funds. He was sentenced to two years in prison.
Former state Assemblyman Nelson Castro (D-Bronx) is due to be sentenced in January after pleading guilty to making false statements to federal authorities. He had been a cooperating witness in the Stevenson investigation.
City officials who have pleaded guilty during Bharara’s tenure include former NYPD Commissioner Bernard Kerik and former Manhattan Borough President and City Council President Andrew Stein. Kerik was sentenced to four years in prison.
Councilman Larry Seabrook (D-Bronx) was convicted on charges that included fraud in July 2012. He was sentenced last January to five years.
This past spring, Oliver Pan and Jenny Hu, operatives for the mayoral campaign of Comptroller John Liu, were convicted for a scheme to funnel money from straw donors into Liu’s campaign war chest. Both are scheduled to be sentenced next month.
Ozone Park lawyer and Democratic district leader and frequent candidate Al Baldeo is scheduled for trial in November for allegations involving straw donors and obstruction.