State Sen. John Sampson of Brooklyn joined a growing list of New York politicians caught up in scandal as prosecutors Monday accused him of embezzling $440,000 to finance a run for Brooklyn district attorney and recruiting a mole in the U.S. attorney's office to try to thwart a federal probe.
Sampson, 47, a Democrat and former State Senate Ethics Committee chairman, allegedly looted the money from escrow accounts he oversaw as a court-appointed referee, threatened to "take out" informants, and told FBI agents who accused him of lying that "not everything I told you was false."
The indictment in Brooklyn federal court followed the government's disclosure on Friday that former Sen. Shirley Huntley (D-Queens) last summer secretly recorded meetings with seven elected officials, including an unidentified senator who talked about a Kennedy Airport bribery scheme.
Loretta E. Lynch, the U.S. attorney in Brooklyn, said Monday's charges did not flow out of those recordings, and declined to comment on reports that Sampson was the unnamed senator. But she said corruption probes are continuing, and the behavior of Sampson and other elected officials is making the public "cynical."
"The voters of New York rightfully expect their elected officials to represent the voters' interest, not to trade on their positions of power to line their own pockets," she told reporters at a news conference.
Sampson turned himself in to the FBI Monday morning and later pleaded not guilty.
His attorney Zachary Carter of Manhattan blasted prosecutors Monday, saying that disclosure of Huntley's taping for the FBI had unfairly created expectations that Sampson would be charged with public corruption, instead of embezzlement and obstruction of justice only.
"There's a difference between corruption and ordinary crimes charged against people who happen to be public officials," Carter said. "The senator does not stand accused of any offenses that implicate the misuse of his office." Carter would not say whether Sampson was the senator Huntley recorded.
Elected in 1996 to represent Canarsie, Sampson reached the apex of his power in 2009 and 2010, when he headed the Democratic conference while the party controlled the Senate. He promised, with co-leaders Sen. Malcolm Smith (D-Queens) and then-Sen. Pedro Espada (D-Bronx), to "restore faith" in the Senate. All three have been indicted or convicted of crimes.
Reactions from peers
Democratic Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said Sampson's case showed the need for reform.
Charges against Sampson
The indictment said Sampson stole surplus funds, left over after mortgages were paid, from foreclosure sales he oversaw for the Brooklyn state court from 1998 till 2008. It later alleges that he used the funds to pay expenses from his unsuccessful 2005 challenge to Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes.
Sampson then allegedly borrowed $188,000 from an unnamed "associate" to try to repay the stolen funds without listing the loan on Senate disclosure forms. In 2011, when the associate was indicted on federal fraud charges, Sampson urged him to lie, according to the indictment, and later solicited leaks about informants from an employee of Lynch's office.
A person familiar with the investigation identified the associate, who later became an informer, as Edul Ahmad, a Brooklyn real estate investor. The U.S. attorney's office employee contacted by Sampson, who Lynch said has been fired, was identified by a source as Sam Noel.
Sampson allegedly told the associate that if he learned the identities of any informants from the mole, he would "take them out." In 2012, after he was interviewed by the FBI and accused of making false statements, Sampson allegedly responded, "Not everything I told you was false."
Sampson faces two counts of embezzlement, five counts of obstruction of justice and two counts of making false statements to the FBI. Prosecutors said they have offered him a plea bargain to admit to one count of embezzlement and one count of obstruction of justice, with a sentence of between 37 and 46 months in prison under federal sentencing guidelines. He has until May 31 to decide.
Huntley pleaded guilty in August to looting money from a state-funded nonprofit. She is to be sentenced in Brooklyn federal court on Thursday.
Sampson's indictment follows a series of federal indictments, including one last month accusing Smith of bribing GOP leaders in Queens and the Bronx in exchange for getting him into that party's primary for New York City mayor.
" 'Incumbent' and 'defendant' cannot be accepted as interchangeable," said George Venizelos, who heads the New York FBI office. "Elected officials are referred to as public servants, and that should not be confused with self-serving."
With Yancey Roy
RECENT NYS LAWMAKER SCANDALS
State legislators recently charged in connection with corruption investigations:
Sen. John Sampson (D-Brooklyn): Indicted Monday on charges of embezzlement and obstruction of justice for allegedly embezzling $440,000 from an escrow fund he oversaw as a court-appointed referee for foreclosure sales in Brooklyn. A lawyer and former head of the Senate Judiciary and Ethics committees, he was stripped of his Senate minority leadership role Monday.
Assemb. William Boyland (D-Brooklyn) Indicted last week on charges of mail fraud for allegedly using diverted funds to buy "Team Boyland" T-shirts for community events. Also accused of directing staff members to falsify invoices for the purchases. Indicted last year and accused of soliciting bribes from an undercover FBI agent and receiving mileage expenses and per diem payments that he was not entitled to collect.
Sen. Malcolm Smith (D-Queens) Accused in April of bribing GOP leaders in Queens, the Bronx in exchange for entry into that party's primary for New York City mayor.
Assemb. Eric Stevenson (D-Bronx) Charged in April with taking $22,000 in bribes from a businessman in exchange for legislation to protect owners of adult day care centers.
Assemb. Nelson Castro (D-Bronx) Resigned in April after admitting he secretly recorded colleagues for federal investigators after they told him he would be charged with perjury in another corruption probe. His recordings led to Stevenson's indictment.
Former Sen. Shirley Huntley (D-Jamaica) Indicted in August on charges she took part in a scheme to funnel more than $87,000 in public money into a nonprofit she created. Pleaded guilty in January; to be sentenced this week.