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U.S. Attorney assails Albany's 'culture of corruption'

Karen DeWitt

The US Attorney who convicted both of the leaders of the legislature came to Albany Monday to speak to a conference of the state’s mayors. But Preet Bharara was not invited to the State Capitol itself.

He did not meet directly with any lawmakers, even though Bharara and Governor Cuomo attended the same event, the swearing in of the state’ new chief judge.

The US Attorney addressed mayors from all over the state, gathered for their annual meeting, where he told them  the point of his anti corruption work is to “protect democracy."

“The point is not just to punish a politician who has broken the law, although that is necessary too,” Bharara said. “But to help improve a political system that has broken down.”

And he told the mayors their job is made all the harder because of the “culture of corruption” in state government. The US Attorney told the local government leaders that they have “a right not to be ripped off” when they ask state government for help.

“You want your state legislators to be on the level,” Bharara said. “That should not be too much to ask.”

Bharara did not mention the two convicted legislative leaders by name, though he referred to their recent convictions on multiple felony charges.

The US Attorney has been publicly critical of Albany’s system of deal making on the budget and other top issues, the so called three men in a room, where the governor and legislative leaders meet privately to settle issues.  Bharara  also did not mention Governor Andrew Cuomo, the last of the  three men in a room left standing since the convictions of former leaders Silver and Skelos. Although the US Attorney recently issued a statement saying he had not found any evidence of criminality in a probe related to Cuomo’s office.

Bharara did appear in the ornate Court of Appeals chambers with Cuomo to witness the swearing in of the Governor’s pick for the new chief judge, Janet DiFiore. The US Attorney and governor sat in different places and did not speak to one another.

Afterward, Governor Cuomo said that  he and the US Attorney are on the same page when it comes to rooting out corruption. The governor says he’s already laid out in his State of the State message a proposal to strictly limit the outside income of legislators.

“You don’t really get to this issue until you resolve the fundamental conflict,” Cuomo said. “And the fundamental conflict is, legislators are allowed to make outside income.”

The governor has been unsuccessful in the past getting major reform measures passed in the legislature. And Senate Republicans have said they are against limiting outside income. Cuomo says it’s up to the public to persuade the legislature to do the right thing.

“It comes down to the people of the state of New York,” Cuomo said. “Who have to say ‘enough is enough.’”

Earlier in the day, Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan spoke to the mayors group before the US Attorney  appeared. Afterward, the Senate Leader, citing a busy schedule, Flanagan, seemed eager to leave, talking to reporters as he rapidly walked out of the hotel. He was asked his thoughts on Bharara’s addressing the mayors.    

“I think it’s fine,” Flanagan said.

Before leaving Albany, US Attorney Bharara appeared on public radio station WAMC, where he offered a scathing  condemnation of state politicians’ recent behavior, calling it a “rancid," “show me the money culture," and derided the contention by some lawmakers that they are  not doing anything illegal. That’s not enough, he says.

“The standard to maintain one of the most powerful public positions in our state is something higher than ‘I have not yet been convicted of a crime,” Bharara said.

Bharara, in what could be seen as an implicit criticism of governor Cuomo, among others, says the present situation calls for “more than just talk."

As for more prosecutions in the future, Bharara said “we’re not closing up shop anytime soon”.

The US Attorney is continuing to probe the awarding of contracts in some of the Buffalo Billion projects in Western New York.  Cuomo, when asked whether there have been more subpoenas issue to anyone in his administration , said that he’s “heard nothing.”


Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.