Even for New Yorkers accustomed to the drumbeat of elected officials marched away in manacles, the arrests yesterday of Sen. Malcolm Smith, New York City Councilman Daniel Halloran III and four others added up to something different.
This rococo narrative of bribery and other misdeeds laid out by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara goes beyond the usual tale of greed run amok. The feds pretty much describe a criminal enterprise run by Smith, once one of the most powerful Democratic figures in Albany, with help from eager players like Halloran, a Republican whom they say was involved in the plot while running for Congress last November.
The case against the two Queens politicians could ultimately provide a valuable window into the culture of corruption -- pervasive, debilitating and maddeningly resistant to change -- that for generations has dominated the political worlds of Albany and New York City.
How bad is it?
At one point the feds quote Halloran as saying: "Money is what greases the wheel . . . You can't do anything without it."
Sadly, he tarnishes with a broad brush, saying that politicians in New York are "all like that."
The feds say the scheme began when Smith wanted to buy himself a place on the city's Republican mayoral primary ballot and Halloran and other political players were more than willing to help -- for a price.
Together, according to the charges, they built a "corridor of corruption" from Queens to the Bronx to Rockland County and all the way up to Albany, where Smith once served as Senate majority leader and -- until he was stripped of his perks yesterday -- vice chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. Not only was Smith willing to corrupt his fellow politicians and betray those who elected him, said Bharara, but the senator was also working hard to subvert New York City's electoral process.
So now what, after the feds have filed their charges?
Remember this: Smith and Halloran are deal-makers. The feds at the moment have pretty strong evidence of that. And maybe, should other options begin to sour, Smith and Halloran might want to do business with the United States attorney.
For their part, the feds might want to know about those 2010 negotiations for a racino franchise at Aqueduct that blew up at the last minute or just maybe about the taxpayer money that went into Smith's nonprofit organizations.
Do Smith and Halloran have anything to offer on those subjects? If so, they could ultimately find it in their interests to speak up. With a lightning round of "Let's Make a Deal," this case could get very big.
For now, both Smith and Halloran should resign their public offices. They're innocent until proven guilty, of course, but it's impossible to see how they can effectively represent their constituents while facing serious corruption charges with maximum prison terms of 45 years.
The best way to serve their constituents, and the city and the entire state, is to let prosecutors know what they know.