ALBANY – Another day, another chapter in the continuing saga of corruption and scandal that is Albany.
In less than an hour Thursday, the former top Democrat of the State Senate, Malcolm A. Smith, was convicted on felony bribery charges for trying to buy his way into the New York City mayoral race, and then taxpayers found themselves footing a $545,000 tab to settle sexual-harassment allegations against a former Democratic assemblyman from Brooklyn.
The day’s news was just the latest dark cloud to hover over the Capitol, and came just a few days after Sheldon Silver was forced to step down as Assembly speaker by his colleagues after the Manhattan Democrat was arrested on federal corruption charges.
In a word: whew.
Late Thursday morning, word came that Smith, a Queens Democrat and former Senate majority leader who ran the senior house during one of its most turbulent periods in recent history, was found guilty in a federal corruption case.
Then, in the afternoon, it was announced that taxpayers will be writing a big check to settle a disturbing sexual-harassment case involving former Assemblyman Vito J. Lopez, the onetime Albany political powerhouse and disgraced former boss of the Brooklyn Democratic Party. Lopez is personally responsible for paying $35,000 to two former members of his staff in the case.
Smith, the first African-American to reach the top State Senate post in Albany, was found guilty of leading a scheme to try to bribe his way onto the New York City ballot to run as a Republican in the 2013 mayoral race.
Smith ran the Senate when the Democrats briefly held the chamber in 2009 and 2010.
Federal prosecutors had charged that Smith, with the help of $200,000, tried to bribe his way onto the GOP ballot by spreading money around to GOP power brokers. Smith was arrested in 2013, but continued to serve as a rank-and-file state senator, though his fellow Democrats did not allow him to conference with them. He was ousted by voters in Queens last fall in a Democratic primary election.
Also charged in the case was former Queens Republican boss Vincent Tabone. Smith, as a Democrat, needed to secure backing from GOP leaders in order to qualify for a place on the 2013 mayoral ballot on the GOP line. Tabone was convicted along with Smith Thursday. A former New York City councilman, Daniel J. Halloran III, had already pleaded guilty in the case.
The conviction of Smith, whose first trial in the case was declared a mistrial, was widely expected in Albany. Still, it comes in an corruption-weary Capitol and just two weeks after the FBI arrested Silver for allegedly taking bribes and kickbacks over the last 15 years.
Smith’s conviction is another legal victory against Albany corruption for U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, whose Manhattan office brought the case against Smith, Silver and others, and is investigating a number of other current and former officials, including former Sen. George D. Maziarz, R-Newfane.
Bharara’s office also is investigating whether members of the administration of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo interfered with the operations of an abandoned anti-corruption investigative panel, known as the Moreland Commission, in Albany.
Soon after news of Smith’s conviction spread, it was revealed that a settlement had been reached in the cases involving Lopez, 73, dubbed by one New York City tabloid as a “serial groper.”
In all, including the two staffers who settled Thursday, eight women who once worked for Lopez accused him of various acts of sexual harassment.
The state, through a deal worked out several years ago in secret by Silver, already had paid two other women $103,000 to settle their sexual-harassment complaints against Lopez.
Lopez, who resigned in 2013 amid a swirl of headlines over his behavior, had been accused by a number of women who worked on his Assembly staff of asking young women to massage him, wear sexy clothing, touch his cancerous tumors and join him in hotel rooms.
Kevin Mintzer, a Manhattan attorney, announced the settlement on behalf of his two clients, Victoria Burhans and Chloe Rivera. He said the settlement resolves all outstanding federal and court actions the two women brought over the matter. He said the settlement follows several weeks of talks that were supervised by U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael H. Dolinger.
“After more than two years of investigation and litigation, we are pleased to have finally reached a resolution,” the two women said in a statement released by their lawyer.
“We hope our ordeal will serve as a strong reminder to New York’s legislators that they are accountable for their behavior. All women should be treated with respect and dignity, not as sex objects or as problems to be handled and silenced. In a world where women are still not treated equally in the workplace, we hope that our actions give other victims the courage and strength to stand up for justice.”
The two women declined to be interviewed.
Lopez could not be reached to comment, but his attorney, Lyle S. Zuckerman, said the former assemblyman “vigorously denies” any of the claims against him. “By agreeing to pay a very modest amount to resolve the case, he admits absolutely no wrongdoing or liability, and maintains steadfastly that the material allegations against him in this case were not true,” Zuckerman said.
A lawyer retained by the state to handle the matter signed off on the deal to settle the Lopez matter, a state official said.
After the secret settlement made by Silver in the first cases brought against Lopez, Silver in 2012 ousted Lopez from his chairmanship of the Assembly housing committee and banned interns from working for the lawmaker.
Lopez, nonetheless, was re-elected that fall, and he resigned the following spring after the Joint Commission on Public Ethics fined him $330,000 for what it said were incidents of sexual harassment involving eight women who had worked on his staff.
Taxpayers aren’t just paying the new settlement costs. Legal representation for both Lopez and Silver in the scandal has topped $1 million, according to media reports.
In the last 10 years or so, Albany has seen top and not-so-top officials charged or convicted of seemingly every crime but murder: bribery, kickbacks, embezzlement, racketeering, theft of services for taxpayers, drunk driving, rape, perjury, tax fraud, theft of state funds, mail fraud and even throwing coffee in the face of a staff member.
Add in the scandals, and the list grows more: sleeping in an intern’s bedroom, having an affair with an intern, sexual harassment, and, of course, patronizing prostitutes, as in the case of former Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer, who resigned in disgrace.
Citizens Union said that with Smith’s conviction Thursday, the first of 2015 for a state legislator or top state official, 28 state lawmakers in the last 15 years have lost their posts because of some form of criminal or ethical misconduct. An additional four lawmakers, including Silver, are currently embroiled in the midst of some sort of criminal or ethical probe, and Bharara two weeks ago told the media to “stay tuned” with more cases on the way.
Cuomo is seeking to use the latest scandals to drive through changes in the transparency levels of the Legislature, though his new proposals would not have addressed the scandals involving Smith or Lopez.