On Feb. 10, 2013, a government informant and an undercover FBI agent told Queens Democratic state Sen. Malcolm Smith, the former majority leader, that they planned to pay off county leaders to win political support for Smith's hoped-for run for mayor of New York City as a Republican.
"There is a legal and legitimate way what you're doing is fine," Smith responded, according to a court filing. "You just got to make sure that, you know, you're doing this -- let's just say for instance, you have a business arrangement . . . and you're doing business with them. That's none of my business."
Exchanges like that -- which prosecutors say show Smith was hip-deep in a corrupt scheme, and his lawyers say show a law-abiding politician being entrapped by the FBI -- are expected to take center stage as New York's latest political corruption trial begins this week in White Plains.
Onetime Senate power broker Smith, 57, now in his eighth term in the Senate, was charged last year in a multifaceted plan. He allegedly plotted with the informant -- a Rockland County businessman named Mark Stern -- and the undercover agent to pay off Republican leaders for so-called "Wilson-Pakula" certificates, required to let a Democrat run in a GOP primary.
In return for $40,000 in bribes to Queens GOP leader Vincent Tabone and Bronx leader Joseph Savino, who has pleaded guilty, Smith allegedly agreed to channel $500,000 in state funds to a Rockland real estate project he thought the two operatives were developing. Former Queens City Council member Dan Halloran is charged with serving as an intermediary and taking bribes himself.
Related bribery charges against two other public officials -- the then-mayor and then-deputy mayor of suburban Spring Valley -- have been severed from the upcoming trial.
In addition to the charged conduct, prosecutors have said they will prove conversations in which Smith said he spent $50,000 to $60,000 to put other senators "on the payroll" in 2008 when he won election as majority leader, and asked for $100,000 from Stern, the informant, to do the same in 2012.
They also say they will present evidence that the informant funneled thousands in illegal campaign contributions through straw donors to Smith, who in return agreed to allow him to pick a fellow member of the Hasidic community as the "number two man" in Smith's office.
And they plan to play a tape in which Halloran tells the informant, "That's politics, that's politics, it's all about how much. Not about whether or will, it's about how much, and that's our politicians in New York, they're all like that . . . You can't do anything without the [expletive] money."
U.S. District Judge Kenneth Karas, in a final pretrial conference on Friday, signaled that he was leaning against defense requests to keep out such evidence about shady political practices, because of their prejudicial effect; or to take special steps during jury selection to ask about bias against politicians.
The three remaining defendants have signaled plans to attack the credibility of the informant -- who agreed to cooperate after pleading to as-yet unspecified crimes -- but the government has indicated it probably won't even call him as a witness, relying instead on the undercover agent and recordings.
Smith's lawyer Gerald Shargel contends his client never actually agreed to a bribery scheme -- seeking only "legitimate" influence, not, as prosecutors suggest, a ruse to hide illegality. If jurors don't buy that, he plans to argue that Smith was entrapped -- induced into something he wouldn't have done on his own.
"This criminal plan was wholly devised, initiated, planned and suggested by the government agents, and presented to Smith fully formed," Shargel argued in a court filing.
The trial is expected to last two weeks to a month.