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U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara gives ethics lesson to Albany officials

ALBANY – U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara has pretty well already conquered Albany, or at least heavily bruised it. On Monday he came here to give an in-person lecture to this town on its ethical challenges.

“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 a group of local officials gathered in a hotel ballroom just a couple blocks down the street from the state Capitol.

It is that seat of government that Bharara has shaken up the past several years with his minor and major corruption cases against state officials, including the dual corruption convictions in December of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos.

In an 18-minute address to the New York Conference of Mayors, 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.’

“How can you fix big problems or dream big things if corruption is a draining focus,” Bharara said of his portion of the speech that he described as “not getting ripped off by Albany.”

Bharara turned to advising the local officials to “be on the guard” for corruption at home, having effective oversight processes involving such things as procurement contracts and doing things in a transparent way.

Taking such steps, he said, will save taxpayer money, lead to projects getting done “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 Capitol, local lawyers and lobbyists.

Bharara, with at least two other stops in Albany still on his agenda Monday, left the hotel ballroom and slipped out a back door to avoid a phalanx of reporters.

Bharara’s speech came just before he was scheduled to attend the swearing in of the state’s new chief judge, Janet DeFiore. Bharara was not on the list of speakers for that event, but he will be in the same room during the swearing in as Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, the Democrat whose administration Bharara has been investigating for more than two years.

Bharara recently cleared the Cuomo administration of committing federal crimes in the handling and shutdown of a panel the governor established to investigate Albany corruption. Still unresolved is an investigation Bharara’s office opened sometime last year looking at how contracts between the state and developers were awarded in Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion program.

As he made his way to his black van outside an event he attended at the Court of Appeals, Bharara was asked if he was discussing any updates to his probe of the Buffalo Billion program. “No, I’m not,” he said.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, after speaking at the event whose audience members included Bharara, was asked if he knew if Bharara’s Buffalo Billion probe was still active. “I’ve heard nothing,” Cuomo said.

Asked if 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.”

Howard Zemsky, head of Cuomo’s economic development agency, said last week his office has been fully cooperative with the U.S. attorney’s review. The agency received a Bharara-ordered subpoena involving contracts that were awarded through the Buffalo Billion in early 2014. Zemsky did not become head of the agency until a year after the contracts were awarded.

Zemsky said he did not know the last time lawyers at his agency had any contact with Bharara’s investigators.

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 cast 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 in 2009, Bharara has gotten convictions or guilty pleas from 11 individuals who were current or former members of the State Legislature. In the one case he lost – the 2011 corruption trial involving former Assemblyman William Boyland Jr., a Brooklyn Democrat – the lawmaker was rearrested and successfully prosecuted on new charges several years later.

Bharara’s impact on Albany has been deep, not the least of which is the leadership change his criminal probe of Silver and Skelos forced upon the Senate and Assembly. 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 national cable shows, and speaking before groups stretching from law school students to a recent address on ethics before Republicans and Democrats in the Kentucky state Legislature.

Later Monday afternoon, Bharara is scheduled to appear on an Albany-based public radio station where he will take audience questions in a small theater up the street from the Capitol.