By John Celock
New York City’s top federal prosecutor used a speech Friday morning to attack what he said is a “cauldron of corruption” in state government, just a day after he arrested the state Assembly speaker on corruption charges.
U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, speaking to a breakfast sponsored by New York Law School in Manhattan, spoke about how he sees the political culture of New York State leading to a rise in corruption. Bharara has made public corruption a hallmark of his tenure in leading the Southern District of New York’s office, including Thursday’s arrest of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Lower East Side) on a series of corruption charges.
“They go to the very core of what ails all. It is a lack of transparency,” he said. “Joined with a culture of greed and cronyism. It leads to a cauldron of corruption.”
Bharara, speaking to an overflow crowd, said that much of the problem with corruption in the state goes to the culture and practices with of the Empire State’s government. He said the biggest problems are the influence of money on the state political process and how the government is run. He also said that “gaping holes in transparency” have hurt the system.
He noted that in many of the public corruption cases that he has prosecuted, politicians have been looking to trade their official positions for cash. He noted the successful case he brought against former New York City Councilman Dan Halloran (R-Whitestone), where the lawmaker was caught on tape saying it was all about money.
“People should be angry when so many of their leaders can be bought for a few thousand dollars,” Bharara said. “When it is more likely for a New York state senator to be arrested by the authorities than defeated at the polls they should be angry.”
Bharara focused much of his speech on Albany’s famous “three men in a room” way of governance. New York State has been known for a system of government that has concentrated decision making power in the hands of the governor, Assembly speaker and Senate majority leader, including deciding on the state budget and the details of legislation that passes. Assembly and Senate rules have given the leaders of both chambers wide ranging power to control their chambers, including deciding all bills that come up for votes and having control over salary bonuses for members and the composition of committees.
“Power in New York State in unduly concentrated in the hands of a few men. There are 213 men and women in the state Legislature, but it is common knowledge that power is concentrated in the hands of three men,” Bharara said Friday. “When did it come to pass and when did it come to be common.”
Bharara decried that people have found the three men in a room concept to be the norm in Albany that there are jokes made about the governance practice. He used the speech to joke it is spoken of like an old sitcom or like the 1980s comedy movie “Three Men and a Baby.”
Bharara also joked about the size of the room that Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), Silver and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) use for their meetings, wondering if more people cannot fit in the room.
“Three men in a room is that really the way government should be run,” he said. “When did 20 million New Yorkers agree to be run by a trimuvite like Roman times?”
Bharara said that the culture of the state being run by three people takes a toll on the quality of people who decide to run for the state Legislature. He said many would not want to seek a seat because power is so concentrated and regular members don’t accomplish much unless the work is approved by the leadership.
“If you want to make a difference or make a change you might not bother if you can’t be one of the three,” Bharara said Friday.
Bharara also noted the power concentrated in the legislative leaders which he said can “punish independent thinking” and “demand lockstep loyalty.” Among the powers Bharara was referencing is the ability to give out committee and chamber leadership posts to lawmakers, which carry bonuses above the normal $79,500 a year salary. The posts are at the pleasure of the leader. In addition, leaders control office space, staffing levels and the flow of legislation. Silver has been known to use his powers to relegate dissenting Democrats in the Assembly to far away offices and minor committees.
He also said that the culture of Albany has pushed people into wanting to go as far as they could to the line without going over it.
“When you have enough people promoting that culture you have a problem,” Bharara said. “We had a problem a few years ago when a former Senate president’s counsel instructed people to hand deliver their disclosure form to avoid a mail fraud count.”
Bharara said that New York residents should “get angry” at the culture of state government and use the arrest of Silver to demand change. Silver was charged with giving state grants to doctors who referred legal business to him in order to receive referral fees from a private law firm.
Noting that New York has “the best of everything” Bharara said that residents should demand the best state government they can get.
“New York has the safest big city in America and it should not have the most corrupt government in America,” he said.” If there was ever a time for New Yorkers to show their trademark impatience with the status quo it is now.”
Bharara did not detail specifics about which areas of government he would reform and did not comment on proposals made by Cuomo in his State of the State address earlier this week, which included a two-tier salary scale for state lawmakers based on outside income, along with increased disclosure of outside income. Cuomo has not addressed how Silver’s arrest would impact his plan, but Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) told reporters on Thursday that she believes it could help the plan pass in the Legislature.
Bharara did tell the audience that while his office will not stop investigating public corruption in both city and state government, he is only looking for corruption not other behavior.
We’re prosecutors not morality cops,” he said. “If you have the urge to send inappropriate tweets knock yourself out. We want to you stop stealing money.”