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Editorial: High stakes in Schneiderman's corruption cases

When politics and the law collide, sparks fly. It happened when former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara indicted then-leaders of the state Assembly and Senate and it’s happening again as the state attorney general takes aim at a former senator from Western New York and his successor.

Sen. Robert G. Ortt, R-North Tonawanda, and his once-powerful predecessor in office, George D. Maziarz, were indicted Wednesday as part of Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman’s investigation of election law fraud in Western New York. Both men pleaded not guilty on Thursday.

Ortt was combative in his declaration of innocence, not just insisting he was “guilty of nothing,” but going on the attack and accusing Schneiderman of pursuing a political agenda with baseless charges. And he raised the stakes – for himself and Schneiderman – by drawing on his record as a veteran.

“I just want to say as someone who has fought in combat for his country, who has served his city as the mayor and who has served his state as a New York state senator, I am saddened and sickened by the ridiculous and baseless charges that have been put against me by AG Eric Schneiderman,” Ortt told the court.

On Thursday, Schneiderman fired back, suggesting that the case against one or both of the men will relate to “no show jobs and secret payments,” which he described as “the lifeblood of public corruption.” It’s not been unheard of in New York.

So, a showdown it is. The reputation of at least one man seems certain to be damaged in the coming months – either Schneiderman for pursuing unwarranted prosecutions, or Ortt for betraying his public trust and sullying the military by using his combat record to defend himself.

If Schneiderman, a Democrat, is pursuing a political agenda, he’s doing it in an odd way. While Ortt and Maziarz are Republicans, the attorney general has also brought indictments against prominent Democrats, including Buffalo political operative G. Steven Pigeon, former State Sen. Shirley Huntley, D-Queens, and New York City Councilman Ruben Wills.

What’s more, as a spokesman for the attorney general noted, the case was referred to Schneiderman’s office by the State Board of Elections and had also been investigated by the FBI. And as to Ortt’s suggestion that the indictment is meant to deliver the Senate into Democratic hands, there seems little likelihood of a Democrat winning that seat under any circumstances.

Ortt will have his opportunity to document his claims and, unless and until a court decides otherwise, he has every right to be presumed innocent. Schneiderman will have to prove that his accusations are true.

Still, without regard to the merits of this case, it’s heartening to see that prosecutors are finally getting serious about enforcing state election laws. It’s been open season in New York for years, as attorneys general directed their attention elsewhere and local prosecutors – who often win their seats based on local party efforts – averted their gaze.

Indeed, it took Bharara to spark any interest in combating official corruption in New York. He won several cases against state officeholders, most prominently including former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos. To the detriment of all New Yorkers, and for reasons that have not been explained, President Trump fired Bharara this month only weeks after asking him to stay in his position.

But perhaps this is a new day. Prosecutors across the state should pursue government corruption doggedly, without regard for party. It’s the best way to earn back the public’s trust and to scare the criminals straight.

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