The federal prosecutor behind the convictions of several of New York's most powerful lawmakers made several stops in Albany Monday. Preet Bharara spent an hour at WAMC’s performing arts studio.
U.S. Attorney for New York's Southern District Preet Bharara has described Albany as a "cauldron of corruption." He visited the Capital City to address a meeting of the state Conference of Mayors, then made at stop at The Linda Monday afternoon, where he addressed a gathering of citizens and good-government groups before sitting down for a live radio conversation with WAMC's Alan Chartock. "I'm here because I have hope that change is possible. I'm here because there are so many good people in the legislature and elsewhere. And I want to congratulate and commend those in government who generally embrace reform, advocate change and welcome scrutiny."
Bharara, who worked 4 and a half years as a legislative staffer in the U.S. Senate on the Judiciary Committee, said corruption can be stopped. "In recent times, the New York Legislature has been marked by regular bribery, rampant kickbacks and a rancid culture. Recent events paint a portrait of the show me the money culture in the worst possible way. It continues, by the way, to be a bipartisan affair, Republican and Democrat, in the Assembly and in the Senate, upstate and downstate."
Last year, Bharara's office successfully prosecuted Democratic ex-Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Republican ex-Senate Leader Dean Skelos on corruption charges. Both leaders had denied the accusations. "If you had attended the trials, or reviewed any of the evidence, and I spent a lot of time at both trials, you would have seen how much of an overwhelming sense of entitlement pervaded both leaders’ thinking and conduct, entitlement to money, entitlement to power. In fact, defense in the Sheldon Silver case was basically that this was just business as usual in Albany."
Bharara was incredulous that, as corruption played on, no one came forward. "There was a deafening silence of the individuals who, over the time period covered by our investigation, must have seen something, must have known something, but said nothing. Those who learned of suspicious and potential criminal activity in the halls of the capitol, yet said nothing. No one made a call. No one blew the whistle. No one sounded the alarm. That's what I've been speaking about. The utter failure to self-police in the capitol."
Albany Democratic Assemblyman John McDonald, the only local member of the legislature in the audience, says, contrary to what Bharara told the crowd, the handwriting wasn't clearly on the wall, at least not for him. "I found that to be surprising, and embarassing, because it really painted a picture over the whole body that we were enablers to that, and we weren't."
McDonald says he did find certain rewarding and redeeming elements in Bharara's chat. "As he said, like many of us are, we're all New Yorkers, we want the best for our state. We want the best government. That's where I think government has fallen short over the last two or three decades. I do think the members now are much more educated and attentive, to not being sidetracked. but the reality is, I couldn't guarantee you today that somebody's not doing something inappropriate."
The Bharara visit was co-sponsored by WAMC, the New York Public Interest Research Group, the League of Women Voters, Common Cause and Citizens Union. Barbara Bartoletti, legislative director of the New York State League of Women Voters, makes a case for eliminating temptation and ensuing corruption via reform. "Not just campaign finance reform, but you have to do ethics reform along with it, and close some of the pay to play culture that has gone on for so many years here. And everybody plays that same game. And they run for election every two years. So they constantly have to be raising money. If you lower the campaign contributions, public financing would be a very good way to go about that. Nobody. The governor puts it in his budget. The legislature takes it out of his budget, and nobody talks about it after that. So we really have to have the political will to get all of this done."
Bharara's office also investigated Governor Andrew Cuomo's abrupt shutdown of the Moreland Commission but found “insufficient evidence” of a crime.