ALBANY – U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara has pretty much conquered Albany, or at least heavily bruised it.
On Monday, he breezed into town to give an in-person lecture on the ethical lapses facing New York, and the dangers that public corruption poses to both policy and the state’s residents.
“How can you fix big problems or dream big things if corruption is a draining focus,” Bharara said during the portion of his first speech of the day that he described as the “not getting ripped off by Albany” part.
At another stop, on WAMC public radio, Bharara called on everyone from the public to rank-and-file legislators to get involved in reducing Albany’s “crisis of corruption” that has produced a culture of bribery, kickbacks and a “rancid” environment.
“It calls for a re-examination of the culture of our public institutions,” he said. “It’s not just the corrupt actors themselves who bear responsibility.”
The calls for ethical reform the Manhattan-based federal prosecutor, who has made a name for himself investigating corruption cases at the Capitol, made Monday a bit dreamy, even by Albany standards.
First, he talked to mayors from across the state about ethical challenges confronting New York.
Then it was off to the Court of Appeals for the swearing in of the state’s new chief judge, Janet M. DiFiore. In the audience with him were other prosecutors, judges, lawyers and even a former state senator whom he prosecuted on tax charges. In one of the judge’s seats was Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, whose administration was recently cleared by Bharara of interference with a now-shuttered anti-corruption commission.
Bharara, the Manhattan-based U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, is still investigating the governor’s Buffalo Billion economic-development program. Asked whether he would discuss the status of that probe, he said, “No, I’m not.”
His third and final stop of the day was at a small theater where he spoke and took questions at an event conducted by WAMC.
A warning to local officials
“It’s a basic right of every mayor and a basic right of every mayor’s constituents … and that basic right is not to be ripped off,” Bharara said in a morning speech to the New York Conference of Mayors, which represents city and village officials.
The address came two months after Bharara won corruption convictions against former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, and former Senate Majority Leader Dean G. Skelos, R-Rockville Centre.
In an 18-minute address to the mayors group, Bharara gave a recital of why corruption in Albany matters to local officials and an Ethics 101 lesson about how public officials need to guard against municipal wrongdoing.
Bharara noted how the local officials were in Albany, as they are every year, looking for various state assistance for projects back home. “The center of gravity … is in state government,” he said of the major decisions here that affect localities on the education, health care and transportation fronts.
“You want to know and believe that the people … are on the level,” Bharara said of Albany officials who hear the pleas from local governments. “You just want state legislators to be on the level. That should not be too much to ask.”
Bharara turned to advising the local officials to “be on the guard” for corruption at home by having effective oversight for such things as procurement contracts and conducting government business with transparency.
Taking such steps, he said, will save taxpayer money, lead to government action being done on the merits, “and you will save your reputation.”
Be warned, Bharara told the city and village officials. “There are predators everywhere who see free money,” he said to a standing-room audience that included not just local officials and reporters, but a number of people who work in the State Capitol, local lawyers and lobbyists.
Two speakers before Bharara was Skelos’ replacement, Senate Majority Leader John J. Flanagan Jr., R-Huntington. In his speech, Flanagan did not mention Albany’s ethics run-ins. Asked whether he was staying for Bharara’s appearance, Flanagan said, “No, I have tons of appointments in my office.”
Bharara skipped out a backdoor to avoid a phalanx of reporters. He recently cleared the Cuomo administration of committing federal crimes in the handling and shutdown of the Moreland Commission that the governor established to investigate Albany corruption.
Still unresolved is an investigation of how contracts between the state and developers were awarded for the Buffalo Billion. Howard A. Zemsky, of Buffalo, head of Cuomo’s economic-development agency and one of the recipients of Bharara-ordered subpoenas involving the Buffalo Billion, said last week that his office has cooperated fully with any outside review.
After the Court of Appeals event, Cuomo was asked if he knew whether Bharara’s Buffalo Billion probe was still active. “I’ve heard nothing,” Cuomo said.
Asked whether he or anyone in his administration was interviewed as part of that probe, Cuomo said, “When I said I heard nothing, what does that mean? I’ve heard nothing. That’s what it means.”
‘We’re not closing up shop’
Bharara was the day’s headliner in Albany, a town he has publicly avoided since his string of cases against state officials began after his appointment by President Obama in 2009. From his office 150 miles down the Hudson River, Bharara has managed to create an atmosphere of consternation and considerable fear among some lawmakers.
He has used every tool in his arsenal, including having a lawmaker under indictment wear a wiretap to record conversations at the Capitol, recording phone conversations and seizing bank records.
Since becoming U.S. attorney, Bharara has obtained convictions or guilty pleas from 11 people who were current or former members of the State Legislature. In the one case he lost – the 2011 corruption trial involving former Assemblyman William F. Boyland Jr., D-Brooklyn, – the lawmaker was rearrested and successfully prosecuted on new charges several years later.
In his hourlong appearance on WAMC, Bharara was asked about everything from the status of future corruption cases – “We’re not closing up shop any time soon” – to his favorite Bruce Springsteen song – “Thunder Road” (Springsteen was in Albany for a Monday night concert).
Deep impact on Albany
Discounting political speculation, Bharara said he is not looking to run for office and that he already has “the best job I will ever have.” He could be out of that job, depending on who is the next president, in early 2017; U.S. attorneys serve at the pleasure of the president.
Bharara called it “an enlightening moment” after his office charged Silver but some lawmakers worked to keep him as Assembly speaker in what the U.S. attorney called an “enabling culture” at the Capitol. He said lawmakers and others have a responsibility to speak out when they see wrongdoing.
“You think no one knew Sheldon Silver was corrupt before he was put in handcuffs?” Bharara said.
The U.S. attorney also checked in on the state of journalism, openly worrying about financial decisions being made to reduce the ranks of investigative reporters, especially in smaller communities. He talked of corruption cases being one tool to improve the public’s trust and helping to draw “better people” to government.
The prosecutor’s impact on Albany has been deep, not the least of which is the leadership change that his criminal probes of Silver and Skelos forced upon the Assembly and Senate. Since those convictions in December, no new ethics-related steps have been taken in Albany, though there has been talk of everything from restricting the outside incomes of lawmakers to changes in the way in which politicians can raise campaign money in New York.
Bharara has not been shy about publicity, giving media interviews, including on national cable programs, and speaking before groups stretching from law school students to a recent address on ethics before Republicans and Democrats in the Kentucky State Legislature.
Asked how to incentivize politicians to act properly, he said, “I have a particularly blunt instrument … the avoidance of prison.”