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Queens Senate Democrat busted in corruption case

By Tom Precious

ALBANY -- Another season arrives, another corruption case surfaces against a state official. This time Sen. Malcolm Smith, a Queens Democrat, was arrested at daybreak this morning by FBI agents as part of a probe that accuses Smith and others of using fraud and bribes to try to win him a spot on the GOP mayoral ballot.

It marks a setback for Smith, who once was the top Democrat in the Senate, but also for the five-member breakaway Democratic conference, of which Smith is a member, that forged a coalition deal with Senate Republicans to control the chamber.

Various New York City news outlets say Smith was busted by the FBI at about 6am at his Queens home, and that the FBI has scheduled a news conference for later this morning to release details of the case against the lawmaker.

Also arrested was City Councilman Dan Halloran, who officials allege was part of the failed plot to get Smith on the GOP ballot to run in this year's mayoral race. "I have no idea,'' the New York Post quoted Halloran as saying when he was led from his house and asked about the arrest.

“Elected officials are called public servants because they are supposed to serve the people. Public service is not supposed to be a shortcut to self-enrichment," FBI Assistant Director George Venizelos said in a written statement today and reported by the Post.

The New York Daily News said others are being targeted, including Bronx Republican Chairman Jay Savino and Queens GOP vice chairman Vincent Tabone. The Associated Press says Spring Valley Mayor Moramie Jasmin and Spring Valley Deputy Mayor Joseph Desmaret have been charged, and that charges against the various officials include bribery, extortion, and wire and mail fraid.

Smith was first elected to the Senate in a 2000 special election. He was the temporary president of the Senate from 2009 to 2010. His district includes the Jamaica area of Queens.

Here are the court papers in the case.

UPDATE:

In a news conference late this morning with reporters in Manhattan, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District Preet Bharara described a culture of corruption in New York – evidence by criminal case after criminal case over the past decade involving state officials. And he said the actions of law enforcement has proven not to be enough to stop the corruption.

“The dream of honest government cannot come to pass unless there is a real honest change in the culture…New Yorkers should demand more,’’ the federal prosecutor said.

In all, six people were arrested today in three schemes. In the first, Smith okayed payments to Joseph Savino, the Bronx GOP chairman, and Vincent Tabone, the Queens vice chairman, to secure their backing to let the Democrat run as on the Republican mayoral line.

Smith, Bharara said, was “bent on becoming mayor,’’ and could not do so without three of five GOP county chairman from New York City backing the idea of letting a Democrat run on the Republican line. Halloran was described as the quarterback who arranged the meetings with Savino and Tabone.

In all, $80,000 was paid or promised to the two GOP county bosses, who were arrested this morning.

“He decided to bribe his way onto the ballot,’’ the prosecutor said of Smith. Prosecutors said Smith also sought to steer $500,000 in state transportation funding to the cooperating witness and undercover agent for a Rockland County real estate deal.

The second case involves Halloran, a former New York City police officer who prosecutors said believed he could hold a top post in the administration if Smith became mayor. He directed $80,000 in city funds to a company he believed were controlled by the cooperating witness and undercover agent.

“Money is what greases the wheels, good bad or indifferent … That’s politics. That’s politics. It’s all about how much,’’ agents recorded Halloran as allegedly saying about the steering of the city money.

A third case against the mayor and deputy mayor of Spring Valley in Rockland County involved what prosecutors called a corrupt real estate deal in which the two local officials were to have a financial interest.

The meetings between Smith and the undercover agent or cooperating witness took place at hotel rooms in White Plains and Manhattan, Smith’s car in Rockland County and in a March 21 meeting in Smith’s Senate office in Albany – just three days before the Senate returned to take up passage of the 2013 budget.

Bharara said the case “demonstrates, once again, that a show-me-the-money culture seems to pervade every level of New York state government.’’

Here is the written comments from Bharara released before the press conference:

“Today’s charges demonstrate, once again, that a show-me-the-money culture seems to pervade every level of New York government.  The 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 itself.  As alleged, Senator Malcolm Smith tried to bribe his way to a shot at Gracie Mansion – Smith drew up the game plan and Councilman Halloran essentially quarterbacked that drive by finding party chairmen who were wide open to receiving bribes.  After the string of public corruption scandals that we have brought to light, many may rightly resign themselves to the sad truth that perhaps the most powerful special interest in politics is self-interest.  We will continue pursuing and punishing every corrupt official we find, but the public corruption crisis in New York is more than a prosecutor’s problem.”

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About Politics Now

Robert J. McCarthy

Robert J. McCarthy

A native of Schenectady, Robert J. McCarthy came to The Buffalo News in 1982 following a six-year stint at the Olean Times Herald. He is a graduate of St. Bonaventure University, and has been covering local, state and national politics since 1992.

rmccarthy@buffnews.com


Tom Precious

Tom Precious

Tom Precious joined The Buffalo News in 1997 as bureau chief at the state Capitol, where he covers everything from statewide politics and state government fiscal affairs to health care, environmental and municipal government matters. Prior to The News, he worked for news outlets in Albany and Washington, DC.

tprecious@buffnews.com


Jill Terreri

Jill Terreri

Jill Terreri is an Amherst native and has covered politics and government in upstate New York since 2003. She joined The Buffalo News in 2012 and covers City Hall.

@jillterreri | jterreri@buffnews.com


Jerry Zremski

Jerry Zremski

Jerry Zremski, The Buffalo News Washington bureau chief, has reported from the nation's capital since 1989 after joining The News as a business reporter in 1984. A graduate of Syracuse University, Zremski is a former Nieman fellow in journalism at Harvard University. In 2007, he served as president of the National Press Club.

@JerryZremski | jzremski@buffnews.com

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