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High rank in State Senate brings power that is often corrupting

ALBANY – The title of State Senate majority leader exudes Albany power.

But with the arrest Tuesday of Democratic Sen. Malcolm Smith of Queens, three of the four most recent majority leaders have later faced serious federal corruption charges.

Smith, who lost the title following a 2009 Senate coup, was arrested at dawn at his home and accused of a bribery scheme to get political support for him to run as a Republican for New York City mayor this year.

Five others were arrested in connection with the affair or spinoff allegations of corruption.

For prosecutors, it was just the latest in an extraordinarily long line of cases brought against state officials, from former Comptroller Alan Hevesi to former State Senate leaders Joseph Bruno and Pedro Espada.

The newest Albany scandal “demonstrates, once again, that a show-me-the-money culture seems to pervade every level of New York State government,” said U.S. Attorney for the Southern District Preet Bharara.

The New York Public Interest Research Group pointed out that 29 top state officials, most of them lawmakers, have been arrested, convicted, censured or brought down by scandal involving everything from stealing money to sexual indiscretions.

One of those arrested on corruption charges for his role in the Smith scandal, New York City Councilman Dan Halloran, offered a simple explanation about politics and money in an FBI tape recording.

“That’s politics,” the Republican was quoted as saying on the undercover tape. “It’s all about how much … That’s our politicians in New York. They’re all like that, all like that. And they get like that because of the drive that the money does for everything else.”

FBI agents said they caught Smith, 56, on tape as recently as two weeks ago in his Albany Senate office. Agents made five other arrests, including GOP leaders in the Bronx and Queens, a New York City Republican councilman and the Democratic mayor and deputy mayor in the Rockland County community of Spring Valley.

In all the episodes involving a strange set of connections, prosecutors allege more than $100,000 was spread around in bribes arranged by an unnamed cooperating witness and an FBI undercover agent posing as a real estate mogul.

Smith, who ran the Senate during a turbulent period before a 2009 coup, denied the allegations through his lawyer. A maximum sentence on the charges, if convicted, could land Smith in prison for 45 years.

He was the first and only African-American member of the Independent Democratic Conference, the breakaway group of five Democrats who formed a coalition to keep Republicans in partial control of the Senate. He was stripped of his leadership and committee posts seven hours after his arrest.

Sen. Jeff Klein, a Bronx Democrat and leader of the IDC, said that Smith’s actions “breached the trust” of the group and that Smith should consider stepping down from office.

Klein stripped Smith of his $12,500 stipend as Social Services Committee chairman.

In a Buffalo News editorial board meeting Tuesday, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo called the corruption charges “horrific and very troubling if true.”

Not unlike past prosecutors who have dealt with Albany corruption, Bharara noted the level of criminal behavior at the Capitol in the past decade or so and said prosecutors alone can’t clean up Albany.

“The dream of honest government cannot come to pass unless there is a real honest change in the culture … New Yorkers should demand more,’’ he said in a Manhattan news conference.

In the first scheme outlined by prosecutors in a written complaint, Smith approved payments to Joseph Savino, the Bronx GOP chairman, and Vincent Tabone, the Queens vice chairman, to secure their backing to let him run on the Republican mayoral line. As a Democrat seeking a wild long shot to run as the GOP candidate for mayor, Smith needed the backing of three of five Republican chairmen from the city’s five boroughs.

Smith was “bent on becoming mayor,” Bharara said.

Halloran, the city councilman and former New York police officer, was described as the quarterback who arranged the payments to the borough leaders. This was all with Smith’s blessing, who talked of giving only half the money until they delivered the signatures needed to get him on the ballot.

In all, $80,000 was paid or promised to the two GOP county bosses, who also were arrested Tuesday morning.

“He decided to bribe his way onto the ballot,” the prosecutor said of Smith.

Prosecutors said Smith also sought to steer $500,000 in state transportation funding to the cooperating witness and undercover agent for a Rockland County real estate deal.

The second case involves allegations Halloran directed $80,000 in city funds to a company he believed was controlled by the cooperating witness and undercover agent.

A third case was brought against the mayor and deputy mayor of Spring Valley in Rockland County – Noramie Jasmin and Joseph Desmaret, respectively. They were part of a scheme involving Smith and road and redevelopment projects in the village.

Smith joined the Senate in 2000 and became majority leader for a brief time before the 2009 coup. He later emerged with the title of temporary president of the Senate but little real power until the Republicans took back control of the Senate in 2011.