NEW YORK (AP) — A Democratic state senator conspired with a New York City councilman to buy himself onto the Republican ballot for mayor this year with tens of thousands of dollars in bribes to two Republican leaders, a prosecutor said Tuesday as he announced six arrests in a case he warned reveals a “show-me-the-money culture” at every level of New York government.
Malcolm Smith, 56, who has served at times as the state Senate’s majority and minority leader since becoming a senator in March 2000, was arrested along with Republican New York City Councilman Dan Halloran, 42, and four other political figures.
U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara told a news conference he believed public corruption in New York was “downright pervasive” and “a show-me-the-money culture seems to pervade every level of New York government.”
He read aloud what he said a recording device captured from a conversation last year when Halloran allegedly accepted a $7,500 cash bribe from a cooperating witness so Halloran could run for Congress.
“That’s politics … it’s all about how much … that’s our politicians in New York, they’re all like that, all like that,” Bharara quoted Halloran as saying. “And they get like that because of the drive that the money does for everything else. You can’t do anything without the … money.”
The prosecutor said: “These words should echo in the ears of every New Yorker who still holds onto the dream of honest government.”
Smith “tried to bribe his way to a shot at Gracie Mansion,” Bharara said, referring to the official mayor’s residence. “Smith drew up the game plan and Councilman Halloran essentially quarterbacked that drive by finding party chairmen who were wide open to receiving bribes.”
Smith, who serves on the state Senate’s transportation committee and is vice chairman of its finance committee, said in a statement that he’ll be vindicated. His lawyer, Gerald L. Shargel, said his client denies wrongdoing.
“Malcolm Smith is a dedicated public servant who has served both the state of New York and his constituents in an exemplary fashion,” Shargel said. “He steadfastly denies the allegations that are contained in the complaint.”
A representative for Halloran did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
A criminal complaint filed in federal court in White Plains said that in meetings with a cooperating witness and an undercover FBI agent posing as a wealthy real estate developer, Smith agreed to bribe up to five leaders of Republican Party county committees in the five boroughs of New York City so he could run for mayor as a Republican, even though he was a registered Democrat.
Bharara said $80,000 in cash was promised or paid to Bronx County Republican Party Chairman Joseph Savino, 45, and Queens County Republican Party Vice Chairman Vincent Tabone, 46, who were both arrested Tuesday. The government said Halloran told the undercover agent that he wanted to get his “mortgage situation resolved” and to be named deputy police commissioner if Smith were elected mayor.
Besides the mayoral plot, authorities said the investigation also revealed a scheme in which Halloran received $18,300 in cash bribes and $6,500 in straw donor campaign contribution checks to steer up to $80,000 in City Council money to a company he believed was controlled by those who paid him the bribes.
In a third plot, prosecutors say, Spring Valley Mayor Noramie Jasmin, 49, and Spring Valley Deputy Mayor Joseph Desmaret, 55, agreed to accept financial benefits so that Smith could use his power as a senator to help obtain state funds for road work in the Rockland County village outside New York City that would benefit a real estate project that Smith believed was being built by the undercover agent’s company in Spring Valley. Jasmin and Desmaret were arrested Tuesday.
Representatives for Savino, Tabone, Jasmin, and Desmaret did not immediately respond to comment requests.
In court papers, the FBI detailed numerous meetings over the last year among the defendants, the undercover FBI agent and the cooperating witness, who pleaded guilty to federal charges last month in a deal aimed at winning leniency at sentencing.
In a Jan. 25 meeting in Smith’s car in Rockland County, the cooperating witness told Smith that buying the help of Republican county committee leaders would cost “a pretty penny” and asked if it’s “worth any price,” the complaint said. The FBI said Smith responded: “Look, talk to me before you close it. But it’s worth it. Because you know how big a deal it is.”
An effort by Smith to run as a Republican is not unprecedented. Mayor Michael Bloomberg switched from the Democratic to Republican parties shortly before his first successful run for mayor in 2001. The path is attractive to candidates because it is easier to get on the ballot for the Republican mayoral primary in a city crowded with Democratic politicians.
But Smith could not run as a Republican without the written consent of three of the city’s five Republican Party county chairmen.
Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, speaking Tuesday at an event in Buffalo, called the arrests “very, very troubling.”
“We have zero tolerance for any violation of the public integrity and the public trust,” Cuomo said.
New York Republican Chairman Ed Cox said the arrests were “deeply concerning.”
“The integrity of the electoral process for the voters of New York City must be preserved,” Cox said in a statement.
One candidate for mayor, billionaire businessman John Catsimatidis, said the arrests “point to a culture of corruption that permeates our city and state, corruption fueled by career politicians who put personal advancement before public service.”
If convicted of conspiracy, wire fraud and violation of the Hobbs Act, Smith could face up to 45 years in prison. If convicted, Halloran faced the same potential penalty on charges of conspiracy and two counts of wire fraud. Tabone and Savino were each charged with conspiracy and wire fraud, which carry up to 25 years in prison. Jasmin and Desmaret were charged with mail fraud, which carries a potential penalty of 20 years in prison.
Associated Press writers Jennifer Peltz and Tom Hays in New York and Michael Hill and George M. Walsh in Albany contributed to this report.