Sep. 11, 2015

Bharara: NYers should be outraged over corrupt politicians

Story by Antonio Antennuci , Sophia Rosenbaum and Laura Italiano

Get angry, New York.

In a rousing speech made one day after the bust of state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, Manhattan US Attorney Preet Bharara urged state residents to voice their outrage over the “cauldron of corruption” that is Albany.

“People need to demand more,” Bharara said Friday, addressing 350 students, faculty and invited dignitaries at an event hosted by the Center for New York City Law at New York Law School.

“It’s not just enough to be fed up,” the prosecutor told the overflow crowd, which included former Mayor David Dinkins, former mayoral candidate and MTA chairman Joe Lhota and city Special Commissioner of Investigation Richard Condon.

“When in New York, politician after politician after politician breaks bad, that’s a time to say no more half-measures,” he said.

“And, I think, given the interest and the attention to some of the cases we brought and continue to bring, this can finally be perhaps a turning point for reform.”

Bharara didn’t mention Silver by name during the 25-minute speech that toggled between emphatic and humorous — and included a gamut of references from Bruce Springsteen to Edward R. Murrow to ’70s sitcoms.

But the prosecutor repeatedly referenced the speaker’s corruption case, which alleges Silver peddled his influence in return for more than $4 million in kickbacks and bogus legal fees.
“If ever there was a moment for real reform, I think it’s now,” he urged. “And the public has to demand more.

“No state — no state — has people who are more thoughtful, more industrious, more resilient, more demanding and more impatient than New York,” he said.

“And if there was ever a time for New Yorkers to show their trademark impatience with the status quo and to show it loudly, I submit now’s a good time for that.”

The mission of his anti-corruption prosecutors is simple, he said: “We simply want people in high office to stop violating the law . . . People elected to make laws should not be breaking them.”

But break them they do, with disturbing frequency, Bharara said, noting, “Money often seems to be at the core of the problem.”

Case after case, public corruption has typically been about simple monetary greed, he said.

“We had a case against City Councilman Dan Halloran, which you may remember,” Bharara said, referring to the Queens Republican convicted last July in a $200,000 bribery scheme.

“After allegedly receiving a $7,500 cash bribe, he says to the cooperating witness on tape, ‘Money is what greases the wheels. Good, bad or indifferent . . . That’s politics. That’s politics. It’s all about how much, and that’s all our politicians in New York. They’re all like that. All like that.’ ”

Bharara asked the audience to next consider a snippet from the wiretap of state Assemblyman Eric Stevenson, currently serving a three-year prison sentence after taking $22,000 in bribes.

“Here’s Eric Stevenson in his own words, as recorded in the case: ‘Bottom line, if half the people up here in Albany was ever caught for what they do, they would probably be in jail.’ ”

How should these examples make New Yorkers feel, the prosecutor asked before answering his own question.

“As I’ve said before, I think the people of New York should be disappointed, but they should be more than disappointed,” he said.

“They should maybe be angry. When so many of their leaders can be bought for a few thousand dollars, they should think about getting angry.

“When it is more likely for a New York state senator to be arrested by the authorities than to be defeated at the polls, maybe they should think about getting angry.

“And they should ask some pointed questions. Given the allegations in case after case after case, how many other pending bills were born of bribery?

“And worse, how many past bills were born of bribery or improper influence? How about items in the budget? How much of the work of the city and the state government is tarnished by tawdry graft?

“While I continue to believe that public corruption in New York is more than a prosecutor’s problem, you should rest assured that the people in my office are extremely busy and will continue to do what prosecutors do.

“And that means being as aggressive and proactive on public corruption as we are on gangs and drugs and organized crime and insider trading and everything else.

“Because whenever corruption is on the rise, that means democracy is on the decline,” he said.

Greed for cash has a co-conspirator, Bharara said — and that’s the problems endemic in Albany’s culture of entitlement and secrecy.

“It’s a lack of transparency, a lack of accountability and lack of principle joined with an overabundance of greed, cronyism and self-dealing,” he said.

“I mean, it seems sometimes that Albany really is a cauldron of corruption.”

For emphasis, he quoted the iconic journalist Edward R. Murrow: “A nation of sheep will beget a government of wolves.”

Bharara began his speech by joking that he hadn’t planned to talk at such length about public corruption when he agreed to give the speech a month ago.

“I was going to talk about Bruce Springsteen,” he joked, name-dropping his favorite musician.

Bharara also took a veiled jab at Gov. Cuomo, whose own Moreland Commission panel tried to investigate Silver and other state lawmakers before the governor abruptly shut it down.

The prosecutor said Thursday that his office merged its records with Moreland’s to put together the case against the speaker.

“The hope is — at least my hope is — that a byproduct of bringing powerful and strong and righteous and appropriate cases is that there will be reform. And that almost happened with the Moreland Commission,” he said. “But it turned out to be a little bit fleeting.”

The prosecutor’s remarks were greeted with resounding applause and a standing ovation by half those in attendance, including Lhota and Condon.