Sunday, December 27, 2015

Cleaning Up New York State Corruption: Who Is Preet Bharara?

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara
Preet Bharara: The man behind NY corruption busting
Joseph Spector, Journal Albany Bureau, December 26, 2015

ALBANY - When Andrew Cuomo was running for attorney general in 2006, he vowed to be the “Sheriff of State Street,” where the state Capitol is located.

A decade later, there’s a new sheriff in town: U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara.

In his six years in office, Bharara has won the guilty verdicts of 27 public officials, and none were larger than the convictions in the last month of the former legislative leaders, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Leader Dean Skelos.


Former N.Y. Assembly Speaker Silver guilty on all counts


Ex-NY Senate leader Skelos, son guilty of extortion

Already, Bharara has carved out a public-corruption record that rivals anyone who has held the distinguished post for the Southern District of New York, which covers parts of New York City and the Hudson Valley.

People close to him say Bharara has a calm confidence that, over decades in politics and the courtroom, has driven him toward a belief that New York is fertile ground for public corruption.

He has wiretapped lawmakers and their phones, turned their trusted political allies into informants and stepped in when state prosecutors and oversight agencies didn’t.


Why can't Albany clean itself up?

The goal, ultimately, is to change government for the better, he and those who’ve worked with him said.

“There’s a lot of cases that you do, but these two (Silver and Skelos) are ones that hopefully will actually change things in a broader way,” said Richard Zabel, Bharara’s former deputy until June when he left for the private sector. “That’s what Preet is trying to do.”

Bharara’s convictions of Silver and Skelos — two of the three most powerful figures in New York — has led to speculation about his own political future and whether he is targeting the state’s other most powerful leader in New York: Cuomo, the Democratic governor.

Bharara’s office is still believed to be investigating Cuomo and his staff’s role in the demise of — and the potential tampering with — a corruption-busting panel that Cuomo empaneled in 2013 but shuttered a year later.

Bharara earlier this month didn’t let Cuomo off the hook when asked directly whether Cuomo is next on his list. He has criticized Cuomo’s decision to disband the Moreland Commission, but Cuomo has defended the move, saying the commission's work has aided prosecutors' probes and led to new ethics reforms.


Who’s next? Bharara won’t disclose corruption probes

“I’m not going to talk about any investigations that we have open. We have lots of investigations open,” Bharara said on WNYC radio. “I think that people like to talk about what’s going to happen tomorrow.”

But he added: “You shouldn’t read into anything I’m saying one way or the other. And I know people like to do that.”

Capitol shadow

Bharara, 47, a naturalized U.S. citizen who was born in India, has loomed large over the Capitol since he starting digging into corruption soon after he took office in August 2009 — months after he was nominated by President Obama.

A former assistant U.S. attorney in the Southern District between 2000 and 2005, Bharara got his first true taste of politics as chief counsel to U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-NY, over the subsequent four years.

Friends said that experience shaped Bharara’s understanding of the politics and levers of power in New York.

“His prosecutorial background is enhanced because he understands the political process, and he’s not afraid of it,” said Viet Dinh, a close friend and prominent Washington, D.C., lawyer.

With Schumer, Bharara also appears to have picked up his former boss’ skills at trying to gain maximum media impact.

Silver was arrested Jan. 22 — just hours after the Manhattan Democrat was on stage with Cuomo at the governor’s State of the State address near the Capitol.


Speaker Sheldon Silver's corruption arrest stuns Capitol

When Bharara arrested Silver and Skelos, the news conferences were filled with charts that showed their alleged wrongdoing. He ended the Silver briefing with, “Stay tuned” — and he’s used that ominous line repeatedly since.

“He has clearly put the fear of ‘you know what’ in the hearts of all Albany legislators,” said Siena College poll spokesman Steven Greenberg. “And his record is phenomenal.”

Bharara’s office has only lost one corruption case: former Assemblyman William Boyland, D-Brooklyn, was acquitted in 2011, but was ultimately convicted in a separate trial by federal prosecutors in Brooklyn.

After Silver’s arrest, Bharara railed against Albany in a series of interviews, calling it a “cauldron of corruption.” His actions raised eyebrows as to whether Bharara was on a publicity tour, and it soon drew a rebuke from the judge in the Silver case.


Bharara rips Albany's "cauldron of corruption"

“The U.S. Attorney, while castigating politicians in Albany for playing fast and loose with the ethical rules that govern their conduct, strayed so close to the edge of the rules governing his own conduct that Defendant Sheldon Silver has a non-frivolous argument that he fell over the edge to the defendant’s prejudice,” U.S. District Court Judge Valerie Caproni wrote in April.


Judge upholds Sheldon Silver's indictment, but chides Preet Bharara

Since then, Bharara’s interviews have been limited. He spoke to The New York Timesafter the Skelos conviction and did the WNYC radio interview. Through a spokesman, he declined an interview request from Gannett’s Albany Bureau.

Building cases

While his lower Manhattan-based office has taken down terrorists and Wall Street executives, Bharara’s public corruption cases have gained the most statewide interest, fueling talk that he may one day run for elected office. His current office has launched the careers of other future politicians, such as Rudy Guiliani and Thomas Dewey.

But Bharara would have to become more widely known in New York: A Siena poll this month showed 73 percent of voters didn’t know him or have an opinion of him.

Dinh said the question over Bharara’s next career move may be simply between staying in the public sector versus the pull of a lucrative job in the private sector. Bharara has a wife and three children, and with a new president to be elected in 2016, his future as U.S. attorney could be in doubt.

“One of the things people keep asking is how long can he afford to do this, and the answer is how long can his family afford for him to do this?” Dinh said.

Soon after taking office, Bharara’s office began bringing corruption cases.

They started with the Jan. 6, 2010, indictment of Sandy Annabi, the former majority leader of the Yonkers City Council. Two years later, she was sentenced to six years in prison.


Court of Appeals: No new trial for Annabi

As the cases built — including convictions against former Hudson Valley Sens. Nick Spano and Vincent Leibell — his staff began to see common themes.

Top state lawmakers had discretion over millions of dollars of public funds that they could dole out with little public oversight, Zabel explained. So they started to follow the money.

The pots of taxpayer dollars allowed the leaders to wield unmatched power — and the grants that they doled out ultimately was at the heart of the corruption cases against Silver and Skelos.

“It kind of led us to think about what are these areas where politicians in New York seem to be preserving themselves the ability to distribute or get money and grants for their own purposes,” Zabel said.

The conviction of Sen. Thomas Libous, R-Binghamton, in July, centered around himlying to the FBI over getting his son a job at a Westchester County law firm — in part by allegedly promising the law firm work because of his power in Albany.


Libous sentenced to house arrest, $50,000 fine

Wiretaps and more

Another key tactic has been the use of wiretaps and non-prosecutorial agreements with key witnesses, such as top campaign donors to Skelos and Silver.

One Bronx legislator wore a wire for four years as a federal informant. A Queens senator wore a wire while at home with an injury, then pleaded guilty to corruption charges.

In the Skelos case, a wiretap was used in part on the phone of Skelos’ son, Adam, who was also convicted in the case. Tapes were played in court that revealed remarkable exchanges between the father and son over how they planned to use the Long Island Republican’s office to benefit Adam’s private business dealings.


NY FRACKING: Did state come close to saying OK?

“We knew these were hard cases to make and so we were always looking for ways we could either get a wiretap or wire people up, like informants and others, and get people on tape,” Zabel said. “That’s the best evidence for a jury.”

Bharara’s tactics have shaken Albany to its core: No longer can private conversations in the Capitol’s dark halls be considered sacred.

And when lawmakers return next month for a six-month session, Bharara’s shadow will hover over the place.

“Everybody in Albany that I talk to, Democrat and Republican, all the speculation is where does he go next? Is the governor on the target list?” said Assemblyman Bill Nojay, R-Pittsford.

Movie lines

For those who know Bharara, his ascension is not a surprise: He’s not boisterous, yet confident and attentive.

Zabel said he and Bharara would exchange messages at 1 a.m. and talk about cases late into the night. In both the Silver and Skelos cases, Bharara was often in court watching his prosecutors present their arguments.

“Some people call him fearless, but it’s not fearlessness born out of reckless abandon,” Dinh said. “It’s a fearlessness born out of confidence in the process and confidence in the work of his office.”

Schumer called Bharara one of the smartest people who ever worked for him.

“He’s cleaning up Albany and that’s a great thing, and I’m proud of him,” Schumer said during a recent visit to Rochester.

Bharara is a Bruce Springsteen superfan and likes to quote lines from movies. One of his favorites is from Mark Wahlberg, who played a police sergeant in The Departed,saying: “I’m the guy who does his job. You must be the other guy.”

Next steps

Bharara’s convictions have led to a new round of calls for ethics reform at the Capitol, and Bharara himself has joined the chorus of those clamoring for change.

In the WNYC interview Dec. 14, Bharara talked about the entrenchment of long-serving leaders, such as Silver who was the speaker for more than 20 years. He also mentioned the problem of lawmakers having outside income and the difficulty of trying to recoup their pensions after they are convicted; the pensions are protected by the state Constitution.

“He’s going to turn out to be a major historical figure in New York,” Blair Horner, the longtime legislative director for the New York Public Interest Research Group. “He may end up single-handedly changing Albany’s political climate.”

Whether Silver and Skelos, who are planning to appeal, are the capstone to Bharara’s corruption crusade or a precursor to more cases remains to be seen.

Bharara’s “stay tuned” line — which he also used in his first Twitter message Dec. 10 — seems to be both a way to toy with lawmakers and warn them.

As he said on the radio: “The first line of defense against bad conduct is the institution itself. And it seems they are doing a pretty poor job of self policing.”

Joseph Spector:, Twitter: @gannettalbany

Preet Bharara

Age: 47

Family: Wife and three children

Education: Harvard College with an A.B. in Government in 1990; Columbia Law School with a J.D. in 1993.

Experience: Lawyer at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, 1993-96; Swidler Berlin Shereff Friedman, 1996-2000; assistant U.S. Attorney in the Southern District of New York, 2000-05; appeared on Time’s “100 Most Influential People in the World” list in 2012; chief counsel to Sen. Charles Schumer, 2005-09; appointed U.S. Attorney, 2009-present.

Key corruption cases

Sandy Annabi: Former majority leader of Yonkers City Council; convicted of bribery, honest services fraud in 2010; sentenced to six years in prison in 2012.

Hiram Monserrate: Former Queens senator; pleaded guilty to mail fraud in 2012; sentenced to two years in prison.

Vincent Leibell: Former Hudson Valley senator; pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice in 2010; 21 months in prison.

Anthony Mangone: Former chief of staff to Sen. Nick Spano; pledged guilty to conspiracy, bribery; sentenced to 18 months in prison this month.

Carl Kruger: Former Brooklyn senator; pleaded guilty in 2011 to honest services fraud; seven years in prison.

Nick Spano: Former Hudson Valley senator; pleaded guilty to obstructing IRS laws in 2012; one year in prison.

Malcolm Smith: Former Senate majority leader from Queens; convicted on wire fraud, bribery in 2015; sentenced to seven years in prison.

Noramie Jasmin: Former Spring Valley mayor in Rockland County; convicted on mail fraud in 2015; sentenced to four years in prison.

Thomas Libous: Former Binghamton-area senator; convicted on false statements to FBI in July; six months house arrest, appeal pending.

Ernest Davis: Mount Vernon mayor; pleaded guilty to failure to file tax returns; one year probation.

Sheldon Silver: Former Assembly speaker; convicted on all seven counts in November; appeal, sentencing pending.

Dean Skelos: Former Senate majority leader; convicted on all eight counts in December; appeal, sentencing pending.

Preet Bharara, U.S. Attorney, Sees Lessons in Albany Corruption Trials

Preet Bharara, the United States attorney whose office recently won the corruption convictions of two of New York’s most powerful legislators, says that Albany’s problems are deep and systemic but that potential solutions are not hard to find: They lie in the nitty-gritty evidence presented at the unprecedented trial.

In his first interview since the verdicts, the most recent of which was delivered on Friday, Mr. Bharara said that the two trials hammered home the fact that the ability of lawmakers to earn outside income, coupled with a lack of transparency, weak disclosure requirements and the concentration of power in the hands of a few, is hugely problematic.

“It would be, I think, irresponsible not to spend some time talking about what those things, what those trials, have taught us, and what those cases may mean for how everyone can get good government,” Mr. Bharara said.

Mr. Bharara declined, as he has previously, to suggest specific reforms or remedies or to say how any such measures would be carried out.

But he said the fact that both convicted lawmakers — Sheldon Silver, the former Assembly speaker, and Dean G. Skelos, the former Senate majority leader — chose to go to trial instead of pleading guilty in a quick hearing allowed for a much more detailed airing of how their crimes were committed.

“All I’m saying is that what we offer in terms of the debate is the facts that were exposed in the cases that we have brought,” Mr. Bharara said.

“I think that people should take a look at what that showed,” he added, referring to the public and others who are seeking meaningful reform of Albany’s dysfunction.

Mr. Bharara noted that the trial of Mr. Silver, in particular, underscored the longstanding nature of his ethical lapses and his crimes, which dated back at least 15 years, and how some lawmakers in Albany allowed them to continue.

“The corruption in the State Legislature in Albany has not been episodic,” Mr. Bharara said. “It’s been systemic, and if nothing else, the trials revealed that there’s a deep culture problem, and a matter-of-factness about how at least these two defendants, who’ve now been found guilty, went about their daily corrupt business with barely a thought about it.”

Mr. Bharara, whose office has won the convictions of about a dozen current and former state legislators in his six-year tenure, said his public corruption investigations were continuing, but he would not discuss them.


New Yorkers Want New Ethics Laws to Clean Up Albany, Poll FindsDEC. 14, 2015

Dean Skelos, Ex-New York Senate Leader, and His Son Are Convicted of CorruptionDEC. 11, 2015

Sheldon Silver, Ex-New York Assembly Speaker, Is Found Guilty on All CountsNOV. 30, 2015

He also declined to discuss what kind of sentence his office would seek for the two former lawmakers, who forfeited their seats upon conviction.Photo

Sheldon Silver, a former speaker of the New York Assembly, leaving federal court in Manhattan last month after being found guilty on all counts in his corruption trial. CreditRobert Stolarik for The New York Times

Mr. Silver, 71, a Manhattan Democrat, was found guilty on Nov. 30 on honest services fraud, extortion and money laundering charges, for schemes through which he obtained nearly $4 million in exchange for using his office to help benefit a cancer researcher and two real estate developers.

Mr. Skelos, 67, a Long Island Republican, and his son, Adam B. Skelos, 33, were found guilty on Friday of bribery, extortion and conspiracy charges, for schemes that exploited the senator’s position to pressure a developer, an environmental technology company and a medical malpractice insurer to provide the son with hundreds of thousands of dollars in consulting fees and a no-show job.

Mr. Bharara took special interest in the two trials, spending many days observing from the rear of the courtrooms with several of his senior aides. In the interview, he recalled one piece of testimony that he had found particularly revelatory — “stunning,” as he put it.

Albany on Trial
In the past decade, the state capital has been rocked by a seemingly endless barrage of scandals and arrests involving officeholders.

Albany Trials Exposed the Power of a Real Estate FirmDEC 18

Corporate Victims Said to Be Shocked (Shocked!) at Dean Skelos’s Request for MoneyDEC 10

Adam Skelos's IncomeDEC 10

Jury Begins Deliberations in Trial of Dean Skelos and His SonDEC 10

Defense Lawyers Point Out ‘Holes’ in Case Against Dean Skelos and SonDEC 9

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State Senator Tony Avella, a Democrat from Queens, testified that as chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee, he had been barred from holding any committee hearings.

“The idea that the chair of the ethics committee has never had the opportunity to mark up a bill, has never had the opportunity to hold a hearing,” Mr. Bharara said, “tells you everything you need to know about the enabling nature of all the people in the State Legislature who may not have been convicted of crimes, but seem not to care that they’re going on. I think that’s indisputable.”

Mr. Bharara, while reiterating he was not advocating any specific reform, said the trial showed how a lack of transparency and no restriction on outside incomes made it easier for lawmakers involved in corrupt deals to carry out their crimes undetected.

“It makes it harder to prosecute the bad apples when every apple is able to be nontransparent about that outside income,” Mr. Bharara said. “I’m trying to suggest that these are things that are really, really worth talking about,” he added.

Mr. Bharara noted that investigators, agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and career prosecutors “have been doing their job with abandon” for years.Photo

State Senator Dean G. Skelos and his son, Adam, left the federal courthouse in Manhattan after the verdict this month.CreditAndrew Renneisen for The New York Times

“But that doesn’t solve the problem any more than the curing of one patient solves a plague,” he added, asserting that any solution must also involve the public and politicians.

Mr. Silver and the elder Mr. Skelos, as the two Legislative leaders, worked closely with Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat who successfully ran for governor in 2010 on a promise to clean up Albany. He has pursued ethics reform numerous times, and achieved only modest results.

And in July 2013 he established a high-powered commission, stacked with a number of state prosecutors, to root out public corruption. However, in a widely criticized decision the governor just nine months later shut down the panel, known as the Moreland Commission.

Earlier this year he said his administration had “proposed every ethics law imaginable” and “you can’t legislate morality and you can’t legislate intelligence.”

But in recent days, after the convictions, Mr. Cuomo has said more reform was, in fact, needed, telling reporters on Sunday that the changes need to be sweeping.

Mr. Bharara, in the interview, also recalled another moment in the trials, when Mr. Silver’s defense lawyer, Steven F. Molo, accused prosecutors of effectively criminalizing conduct that was legal, normal and that allowed “government to function consistent with the way that our founding fathers of the State of New York wanted it to function.”

Mr. Bharara cited the strong response made by one of his prosecutors, Andrew D. Goldstein, who told the jury that such an argument tainted the democratic process by calling corruption “politics as usual.”

The juries “rejected that sorry excuse twice,” Mr. Bharara said.

He also recalled the suggestion, made in court and elsewhere, that prosecutors did not really understand politics.

“One defense lawyer said the prosecutors look at everything through ‘dirty windows,’ ” Mr. Bharara said. “Well, you know what? It turns out it wasn’t the windows that are dirty.”

Sarah Maslin Nir contributed reporting.

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