ALBANY – U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, fresh from the convictions of the State Legislature’s former top two leaders, says officials in a position of improving Albany’s corruption woes have a “moment to reflect” and come up with changes to address lapses in ethics and other laws.
But Bharara on Monday said he is concerned that he has been hearing “a little bit more whispered whining on the part of some legislators in the press, without attribution, than focus on how to solve the problem” facing Albany.
The U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, interviewed Monday morning on WNYC Radio in New York, did not embrace any specific reforms, but said a number of ideas must be considered, including limits on legislators’ outside income.
Bharara also declined, several times, to say whether Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo or his administration is under investigation by his office. Asked by interviewer Brian Lehrer whether Cuomo’s political finances are under investigation, Bharara responded: “I’m not going to talk about any investigation that we have open. We have lots of investigations open.”
He then was asked whether he would say that Cuomo is not under investigation. He responded: “You shouldn’t read anything into what I’m saying one way or another.”
More than a year ago, Bharara’s office began looking into the administration’s potential oversight, and eventual shutdown, of a special anti-corruption commission. “The evidence is there that they were on the right track,” Bharara said of that panel, called the Moreland Commission, and its work looking at the outside income of some legislators, among other probes.
At least four subpoenas have been issued as part of a probe by Bharara into the Cuomo administration’s Buffalo Billion program, an economic-development effort that includes a number of projects heavily concentrated in Buffalo. Bharara’s office has declined to comment on that probe, and the Manhattan-based prosecutor was not asked about it Monday in his WNYC radio interview.
The prosecutor’s interview came three days after a jury convicted former Senate Majority Leader Dean G. Skelos, R-Rockville Centre, in a corruption case involving payments to his son, Adam. Thirteen days earlier, former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, was convicted of using his office to enrich himself. Both cases were brought by Bharara.
“I think there’s no doubt now … that there’s a deep problem with corruption in Albany,” Bharara said.
The U.S. attorney said that there is more to fixing Albany than what residents, prosecutors or the media can do. “The politicians themselves have a role in self-policing,” he said. However, he added, “it seems … that they’re doing a pretty poor job of self-policing.”
Bharara said limits on outside incomes of state officials are something that should be “seriously” considered. “There’s something to be said for the fact … that it’s a little bit harder to get away with bribery, it’s a little bit harder to get away with the extortion, if there’s more strict limits on outside income,” he added of an issue that was the subject of Silver’s illegal activities.
On the issue of Silver and Skelos both being eligible to collect state pensions despite their convictions, Bharara said that it is permitted under state law. But he said issues of fines and penalties – and so possible asset forfeiture – still remain to be considered at the sentencing of Silver and Skelos. “We will be looking for all ways that justice will be done,” he said.
Besides pointing to flaws in the state’s ethics and other laws, Bharara said he hopes his most recent, high-profile convictions send a signal to other officials in Albany who may be “similarly situated” as Silver or Skelos. “It’s not worth it. It’s not worth losing your freedom,” he said.
Bharara defended his outspoken ways regarding Albany corruption, and says it is no different from the public push he has made on problems such as Wall Street insider trading, corporate fraud or opiate abuse. “You can’t prosecute everybody and you can’t prosecute your way out of any problem,” said Bharara, a former chief counsel to Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y.
The radio interview included calls from several listeners, including “Tara” from Plainview, a village on Long Island. “First of all, I just want to say Preet Bharara is my hero,” she said.
The issue of corruption in Albany is considered a very serious or somewhat serious problem by 89 percent of New Yorkers, according to a new state poll that Siena Research Institute released Monday.
When asked the extent to which they followed the recent Silver and Skelos trials, 52 percent of the respondents said “not very closely” or “not at all.”