U.S. attorney: 'No single fix' to New York's 'corrupt culture'

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Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara pledged to "redouble" federal anti-corruption efforts in a speech Monday and criticized New York laws that allow accused politicians to use campaign funds for their legal defense and keep state pensions even if convicted.

Bharara, who rocked Albany with two major corruption cases this month, also complained that legislators file ethics disclosures by hand to avoid mail fraud charges, and use second jobs as lawyers or consultants to shield "money trails" from disclosure.

"Recent and not-so-recent events paint a fairly dismal portrait of the state of government in the State of New York," Bharara said before the Citizens Crime Commission in Manhattan. "It increasingly seems that the best way to find Albany on a map is to look for the intersection of greed and ambition."

The speech elaborated on comments Bharara made after indicting state Sen. Malcolm Smith of Queens along with two Republican county chairmen, a New York city councilman and two municipal officials in one case, and a Bronx state Assemblyman in a second case that relied on a wire-wearing assemblyman as an informant.

Bharara repeated warnings that corruption is so pervasive in New York that it can't be combated by prosecutors alone, and called for reforms.

"I am not in a position to offer opinions on particular proposals -- but I do agree with those who say no single fix will get us far down the road to reform," he said. "Nothing will really change until people undertake a fundamental reform of a corrupt culture."

New York's part-time legislators can work on the side, and both Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos have affiliations with private law firms. Bharara, without naming the leaders, said such side jobs make it harder to trace graft.

"We believe in the old adage: Follow the money," he said. "But that is so much harder to do when the money trails are hidden. When every state or local elected official is able to lawfully moonlight as a lawyer or accountant or consultant and may lawfully withhold deep details of that work, prosecutors face substantial challenges."

The practice of filing financial disclosures by hand was described at the corruption trial of former Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno several years ago. Veteran legislators said it dated back at least two decades, as a measure to avoid overzealous prosecutors.

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But Bharara said it was a practice, like the state's constitutional guarantee of public pensions even after conviction, that sapped public confidence.

"When state senators are advised by the majority leader's counsel -- in writing! -- to hand deliver their financial disclosure forms to avoid federal mail fraud charges," he said, "people lose faith."

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