ALBANY - State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman, who has been accused by his Republican opponent of being weak in fighting corruption, has in the last few weeks convicted the politically connected CEO of a major charity, issued a search warrant on a powerful Republican senator, and empaneled a grand jury to investigate a former Democratic district attorney.
"We have done a lot of public integrity cases and there are more to come," Schneiderman said in an interview. "For people to have confidence in our state government, we have to convey that there is one set of rules for everyone and no one is above the law."
Schneiderman said he has investigated and prosecuted more than 50 people involved in public corruption cases -- including a Democratic state senator, a current member of the New York City Council, and elected officials from both parties across the state.
But his Republican opponent, John Cahill, contends Schneiderman "has basically been absent for three and a half years on public corruption. He has been a get-along, go-along and complicit with corruption in Albany."
Cahill, a former top aide to Gov. George Pataki, dismissed many of Schneiderman's 50 corruption cases as small cases. Cahill cited Schneiderman's prosecution of an executive of a small charity over misuse of funds and a town supervisor charged with misusing town equipment and workers.
Cahill also notes U.S. attorneys pursued 30 higher-level corruption cases within the past 10 years and continue to go after the most-powerful targets.
Easier to report
Schneiderman, a former state senator, said he built the local cases by assigning public integrity officers to his offices statewide because he found local whistle-blowers often feared the local power structure.
"There really was no place for folks to report corruption in local government and that's what is producing a lot of these cases," he said.
He scoffed at criticism he avoids more-powerful targets.
"A member of the State Senate? A New York City councilman?" he countered. "I'm a state prosecutor. We are after the highest levels of actors in state and local government."
Last month, politically connected charity head William Rapfogel pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 3 1/3 to 10 years in prison after Schneiderman accused him of engaging in a kickback scheme while heading the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty. Rapfogel is a longtime friend of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) and Rapfogel's wife, Judith Rapfogel, is Silver's chief of staff.
How voters view the candidates on corruption-busting could be the key to the race. A recent poll found that nearly nine in 10 New Yorkers say corruption is still a serious problem in Albany.
"There's no doubt people want their attorney general in the middle of investigations and rooting out corruption," said Lee Miringoff, political scientist and director of polling at Marist College. "The job has a lot of other duties, but when people think 'attorney general' they think rooting out corruption -- and there's plenty to go around."
A week ago, Schneiderman and the FBI executed a search warrant on the home of Sen. Thomas Libous (R-Binghamton), who is accused by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara of lying to a federal agent in 2009 about his son, Matthew, who is accused of tax evasion. Each pleaded not guilty to the charges and Libous' office declined to comment.
And last week, Schneiderman impaneled a grand jury to investigate possible criminal charges against former Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes, a Democrat, according to a person familiar with the case. The New York City Department of Investigation accused Hynes of using more than $200,000 seized from criminals to pay his political consultant.
Schneiderman noted he's also working with federal prosecutors, but wouldn't identify cases.
Cahill also criticizes Schneiderman for failing to stop a $103,000 secret settlement in 2012 crafted by Silver to end the first round of sexual harassment accusations against once-powerful Sen. Vito Lopez (D-Brooklyn). Lopez has denied sexually harassing anyone and has not been charged.
"He had a chance to change the climate of sexual harassment in Albany," Cahill said in an interview. "But he goes along with hush money."
Schneiderman said he never knew of the settlement and the extent of his office's involvement was only to answer a request to transmit a standard settlement form. A review by the Joint Commission on Public Integrity found neither he nor his office approved or reviewed the Lopez settlement.
Cahill also criticizes Schneiderman for failure to intervene at the Moreland Commission on public corruption he formed with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo when news reports carried claims that the Cuomo administration interfered with subpoenas aimed at Cuomo's allies.
"This attorney general never stood up to power," Cahill said.
Cuomo created the commission a year ago after the latest spate of federal investigations. New reports accused the Cuomo administration of interfering with the commission as it considered issuing subpoenas to one of the governor's biggest campaign donors. Cuomo said his top aides provided only needed advice.
Bharara, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, is investigating after Cuomo shut down the commission after he struck a deal with the legislature to pass some of his ethics measures. Schneiderman won't comment, citing the ongoing investigation.
But while fighting corruption has, since the headline-grabbing days of attorneys general Eliot Spitzer and Andrew M. Cuomo, seemed to become a top responsibility of the office, it really isn't. The attorney general can't pursue most corruption cases without a referral, usually from the governor.
It's a major hurdle that Schneiderman so far hasn't been able to get Cuomo or the legislature to remove.
"An attorney general wants to be about prosecuting, because he wants to make a connection with what people expect him to be," said Gerald Benjamin, distinguished professor of political science at SUNY New Paltz.
But he said that legally, an attorney general's top job is to be the government's lawyer, which often involves mundane issues involving civil transactions, land transfers and enforcing regulations.
Robert Abrams, who served four terms as attorney general, said the many and diverse jurisdictions of the office demand a good, independent lawyer and manager above all else. Past attorneys general have made top priorities of environmental protection, consumer protection and protecting women's reproductive rights before Spitzer took on Wall Street under a forgotten century-old law and Cuomo took on the legislature's use of pork-barrel grants by expanding the office's routine auditing power.
"It's a malleable office," Abrams, a Democrat, said in an interview. "It can be modeled and shaped to match your agenda and your perception of what's got to be done in the public interest."