Fresh off landmark convictions of two Albany legislative leaders in Manhattan, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said Monday there is a “deep problem” of corruption in the state Capitol.
Bharara, appearing on WNYC radio, seemed dismayed at a lack of urgency for ethics reform after the convictions of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Republican Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, and scattered criticism of his aggressive use of federal laws.
“During the course of all this there has been, I hate to say it, a little bit more whispered whining on the part of some legislators in the press without attribution than focus on how to solve the problem and focus on healing themselves and I think that’s unfortunate,” said Bharara, who oversees the Southern District of New York, centered in Manhattan.
He also contrasted the reaction with how he thought the nation might respond if equally prominent Washington leaders were convicted back-to-back.
“It would be a big outcry and I think the Congress itself would begin to realize it needs to step up,” Bharara said on the Brian Lehrer Show.
He offered no specific agenda, but said limiting outside income of legislators and cutting pensions of those convicted were ideas worth exploring. He said the concentration of power in Albany in the governor and two legislative leaders was a core problem.
“Any institution can have bad apples . . . but the first line of defense is the institution itself,” he said. “It seems they’re doing a pretty bad job of self-policing.”
He also noted a snippet of testimony from one of the “good government” progressive Democrats his prosecutors put on the stand at each trial about retaliation that occurred when the authority of leaders like Skelos and Silver was challenged.
“There’s never been a time in the history of government anywhere going back to the Greeks when the inability to challenge the leadership in any way, shape or form without being completely banished has ever been good for government,” Bharara said.
Skelos, 67, and his son Adam, 33, both of Rockville Centre, were convicted Friday of extortion and bribery in schemes to get the son jobs. Silver, 71, of Manhattan, was convicted two weeks ago of doing legislative favors to profit from law-firm referral fees.
Bharara said a key impetus for the prosecutions was the decision of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and the two leaders to kill a Moreland Commission investigating legislative ethics.
But he declined to comment on speculation that Cuomo may be his next target. “I don’t answer hypotheticals,” he said. Bharara declined to comment on whether Cuomo should convene a special session of the legislature to enact ethics reforms — “That’s not for me to say” — but did say New York’s system of having part-time legislators who can earn outside income deserved consideration.
“There is something to be said for the fact that it’s a little bit harder to get away with bribery, a little bit harder to get away with extortion, if there are more strict limits on outside income,” he said. Silver’s case involved outside income, but Skelos’ had nothing to do with it.
He was also asked about pensions — Skelos and Silver are both in line for pensions in excess of $90,000 a year despite their convictions, the result of a state law that Bharara said “doesn’t seem at all fair.”
He said his office will seek to use the pensions as substitute assets to satisfy any forfeiture judgments they get as a result of their illegal schemes. In Silver’s case prosecutors alleged he collected $4 million in “quid pro quo” referral fees, and Skelos’ son got about $300,000.
“We will be looking at all the ways we can make sure that justice is done,” Bharara said.