NEW YORK (Reuters) - A high-ranking Democratic New York State senator was arrested on Tuesday and charged with trying to buy a place on the Republican ticket in the city’s mayoral race, in what prosecutors said was part of a bribery scandal that reflected pervasive corruption in New York politics.
Five other politicians, three Republicans and two Democrats, were also arrested and charged with collectively accepting more than $100,000 in bribes in meetings that often took place in parked cars, hotel rooms and state offices, according to court papers.
Authorities described the scheme - potentially one of the biggest political scandals to hit New York in years - as an attempt to game the city’s first wide-open mayoral election in more than a decade. New York will vote in November for a new mayor to replace Michael Bloomberg, whose third term wraps up at year’s end.
The charges center on State Senator Malcolm Smith, a Democrat from Queens, who was widely considered a long-shot candidate for City Hall. Prosecutors say he made payments to a city councilman to set up meetings with top New York Republicans to assist in getting him on the mayoral ballot.
Smith and the councilman, Daniel Halloran, a Republican from Queens, were among the six politicians arrested on Tuesday morning.
Later on Tuesday, all six appeared in federal court in White Plains, and were ordered to post $250,000 in bail. They face charges including bribery, extortion, and wire and mail fraud.
“From time to time the question arises, how common is corruption in New York?” Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara told a news conference. “Based on the cases that we have brought and continue to bring, it seems downright pervasive.”
If Chicago is often considered the capital of political corruption, and New York City itself was known for graft in the heyday of the Tammany Hall 19th century political machine, New York has suffered its share of scandals in recent years.
Recent cases in New York state include another high-ranking New York state senator, Democrat Pedro Espada Jr., who was convicted last year of stealing more than $600,000 from Soundview HealthCare, a partly federally funded company he worked at; and a pay-for-play scandal at the state’s pension fund that saw the state comptroller resign and serve 21 months in prison from 2011.
In New York City, the former campaign treasurer and a fundraiser for city Comptroller John Liu, who is running for mayor as a Democrat, face fraud charges for violating contribution limits. Both have pleaded not guilty and Liu has not been accused of wrongdoing.
The other politicians arrested on Tuesday were: Queens County Republican Party Vice Chairman Vincent Tabone, Bronx County Republican Party Chairman Joseph Savino, Spring Valley Mayor Noramie Jasmin and Spring Valley Deputy Mayor Joseph Desmaret.
Jasmin and Desmaret, Democrats, were charged with mail fraud in connection with the sale of village property.
Following the court appearance, Smith’s lawyer, Gerald Shargel, said there is “much more to this story,” and said his client plans to plead not guilty.
Lawyers representing Halloran, Tabone and Desmaret denied the charges while lawyers for Jasmin and Savino did not comment.
“It seems to be that they are trying to make the business of politics as usual into a crime” said Tabone’s lawyer, Vito Palmieri.
‘WHAT GREASES THE WHEELS’
The election ticket scandal, uncovered by FBI agents working with an undercover investigator and a cooperating witness, allegedly involved a series of secret meetings in which bribes were discussed or money exchanged as Smith sought the requisite backing to run as a Republican.
The criminal complaint, released on Tuesday, showed the people alternating between brazen and cautious behavior as they solicited and received bribes.
At a September meeting at a Manhattan restaurant at which he received $7,500 in cash, City Councilman Halloran told a cooperating witness working with the FBI, “Money is what greases the wheels - good, bad or indifferent.”
At other times they were more wary. During a February meeting with an undercover FBI agent he believed to be a real estate developer, Queens Republican official Tabone frisked the agent to check for a recording device. He was unsuccessful and the conversation was recorded anyway.
Prosecutors said that two of the politicians charged in the scheme - Tabone and Savino - received a total of $40,000 in bribes for promising to support Smith. Halloran, the Queens Councilman, was said to have gotten $20,500 for setting up a meeting with people Smith believed were supporters but were in fact the cooperating witness and an undercover FBI agent.
As Bloomberg prepares to leave City Hall after 12 years and three terms in office, the race to replace him is shaping up to be one of the most contested campaigns in years.
On the Democratic side, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, former Comptroller Bill Thompson, and Liu have all announced candidacies. On the Republican side are former Metropolitan Transportation Authority Chairman Joseph Lhota and businessman John Catsimatidis.
Smith’s motivation was winning a spot on the ballot as a Republican mayoral contender appears to have been that the Republican primary is seen as considerably less competitive than the Democratic contest in liberal New York.
In 2001, billionaire Bloomberg - a lifelong Democrat - ran for mayor as a Republican, though he later abandoned his party affiliation altogether.
A handful of Democrats, including Smith, have sought Republican support for their candidacies. To be listed on the ballot of the other political party, a New York politician must win the approval of the party chairman in at least three of the five state counties within the city.
Halloran helped Smith, who has represented his eastern Queens district since 2000, in hopes of securing a position as a deputy police commissioner or deputy mayor in a potential Smith administration, U.S. Attorney Bharara said.
The chairman of the state Republican party, Ed Cox, called the arrests “deeply concerning.”
“The integrity of the electoral process for the voters of New York City must be preserved,” Cox said in a statement.
Additional reporting by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Paul Thomasch, Alden Bentley and Tim Dobbyn