It might be laughable if it weren’t so serious — Republican operative Vince Tabone of Bayside was “less skilled at conducting a patdown than he was at conducting a shakedown.” That’s how the FBI described the GOP apparatchik’s failed attempt to find the wire an undercover agent was wearing when he handed Tabone a wad of cash as part of an alleged bribery scheme.
But it is serious. Deadly serious. The case unveiled Tuesday against Tabone, Democratic state Sen. Malcolm Smith of Hollis, Republican City Councilman Dan Halloran of Whitestone and three other alleged conspirators does indeed, as U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said, “demonstrate, once again, that a show-me-the-money culture seems to pervade every level of New York government.”
Halloran put it a bit more bluntly in one of the many conversations the FBI recorded as it built its case over several months: “That’s politics, that’s politics, it’s all about how much. ... That’s our politicians in New York, they’re all like that. ... You can’t do anything without the f---ing money.”
We don’t believe every politician in New York is quite like Halloran, who allegedly took several cash bribes totaling $38,800, along with $6,500 in illegal campaign contributions, as part of the scheme. But he and Bharara are both right that corruption runs deep in our city and state.
The convoluted, criminal, hopeless and, frankly, stupid conspiracy revealed Tuesday was driven by Smith’s desire to run for mayor as a Republican, and allegedly involved bribes going to Halloran, Tabone and two other conspirators. Smith of course wouldn’t have a chance in hell of being elected mayor under any party banner, with all the ethical baggage he was carrying even before these charges became public.
Halloran also allegedly took bribes in return for using his discretionary “member item” funds for someone’s benefit, and Smith allegedly was going to use $500,000 in state funds to aid a developer — who was actually the FBI agent.
Pay to play. “The f---ing money.” Bribery. Graft. Extortion. Endorsements up for sale. Member item spending —our tax dollars — used for illegal political gain. It’s all here.
And none of it’s new. Shirley Huntley. Anthony Seminerio. Brian McLaughlin. Alan Hevesi. Hiram Monserrate. All former Queens politicians guilty in one pay-to-play scandal or another. Go beyond Queens and there are only more, whether charged or convicted: Pedro Espada, William Boyland Jr., Joseph Bruno ... it goes on and on. And it will go on and on absent some serious reforms — and better vetting of would-be officials by all of us, the voters.
You can’t legislate morality, so the best you can do is structure the system so corruption isn’t so easy and doesn’t give such a big payoff, and hope that investigators will pursue a case until every last crook is rounded up. Rumor has it there are more arrests to come stemming from this one.
Smith has been kicked out of the Independent Democratic Conference, the group of Senate GOP allies he should never have been a part of — because it was originally formed to thwart his power back when Democrats briefly led the upper chamber. But much more needs to be done.
As we’ve said before, member items should be reformed or just eliminated; and sitting lawmakers convicted of crimes should forfeit their pensions (new ones must, but incumbents were shamelessly given a pass and grandfathered in). In Queens, the GOP leadership should also be ousted, in favor of the insurgent wing led by South Queens Republicans including Councilman Eric Ulrich. Two policy reforms, one political reform. Just three small steps toward cleaning up the cesspool so many of our so-called leaders have put us in. Let’s do those, and then we’ll see what more is needed.