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U.S. Attorney To Commission: Political Corruption Is Out Of Hand In N.Y. State

Corruption Has 'Swelled To Absolutely Unacceptable Levels,' Bharara Says
U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara (credit: justice.gov)

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara (credit: justice.gov)

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NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara told a new state commission Tuesday night that recent corruption in New York state politics infects state and local officials of both major parties, and has reached intolerable proportions.

“Public corruption, based on all evidence, appears rampant,” Bharara told the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption at its first public hearing. “And the ranks of those convicted in office have swelled to absolutely unacceptable levels.”

Earlier in the day, Bharara’s office moved to take away the pensions of state officials convicted of corruption. The office filing seeks to include pensions as part of the property convicted officials would have to forfeit.

It comes in the case against state Sen. Malcolm Smith (D-Queens), who stands accused of scheming with officials in New York City and Rockland County to raise funds for his one-time attempt to switch parties and run for mayor as a Republican.

Smith and five other defendants at many levels of government were snagged in the case. Smith allegedly wanted to rig the mayoral race so he could run on the GOP ticket, while City Councilman Dan Halloran (R-19th) reportedly helped arrange the bribes to buy Smith a waiver, and two Republican officials had their hands out, reportedly saying “show me the money and the waiver is yours.”

While dozens of New York state officials have been convicted of corruption in recent decades, their lucrative public pensions have remained protected by a provision of the state constitution. That protection hasn’t yet been tested in corruption cases, but the commission planned to use the hearing to focus on new rules to crack down on official misconduct.

Meanwhile, Bill Samuels, a co-founder of Effective NY, has urging the commission to investigate millions of dollars in campaign contributions by business interests formed as limited liability corporations.

Samuels wants the panel to require detailed disclosure of the contributions to the so-called
“housekeeping accounts” of political parties. The housekeeping accounts, as opposed to direct donations to candidates, have few restrictions under law.

The commission, created under the Moreland Act by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, has subpoena power, but can’t directly investigate the Legislature, which is a separate and equal branch of government. Cuomo, however, has directed the commission to investigate the records of the Board of Elections and the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, both executive branch agencies. That probe would consider the connection between campaign contributions, lobbying and lawmakers.

Also, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has deputized the prosecutor members of the commission, which could allow them to investigate lawmakers. But the commission’s primary role seems aimed at developing new laws to address official misconduct, which has dogged New York politics for decades.

The Assembly’s Democratic majority has hired an attorney to address requests for information and other action by the commission directed to the Assembly, as has the Senate majority, controlled by Republicans and the four-member Independent Democratic Conference. A spokesman for the Independent Democratic Conference confirmed the group has also hired a law firm.

Meanwhile, the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School plans to push for a system of public funds to match smaller donations as a way to limit the influence of big money donors in campaign fundraising. The center, which first called Albany “dysfunctional” years ago, also seeks lower campaign contribution limits and an independent enforcer of campaign finance laws.

Besides Bharara, other speakers at the hearing at Pace University included U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch and Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr.

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(TM and © Copyright 2013 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2013 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)