61° Good Morning
61° Good Morning
NewsNew York

Malcolm Smith defense claims he was entrapped as trial opens

Queens Sen. Malcolm Smith arrives at U.S. District

Queens Sen. Malcolm Smith arrives at U.S. District Court in White Plains for jury selection for his fraud and bribery trial on June 2, 2014. Credit: Patrick E. McCarthy

New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman vouched for the Rockland County con artist who became a government informant and helped set up Queens state Sen. Malcolm Smith in a bribery sting, a lawyer for Smith revealed as his federal corruption trial began Wednesday.

Defense lawyer Gerald Shargel, arguing that Smith was entrapped, told jurors in White Plains federal court that Smith would not have called the attorney general to check out developer Moses "Mark" Stern, who bragged about links to Schneiderman, if he had criminal intent.

"Yes, he's on the level," Schneiderman told former Senate colleague Smith, Shargel said. "He raised $100,000 for me. He's a little erratic, but he's a good man, and I recommend him."

Eight-term Democrat Smith, a former Senate majority leader and Albany power broker, and two others are charged in a bribe scheme set up by Stern and an FBI undercover agent to pay party leaders to get Smith a spot in the 2013 New York City Republican mayoral primary.

Stern, known as a generous political donor and bundler from Rockland's Orthodox community, secretly began working with the FBI in 2012 after being caught in a $126 million financial fraud involving Citibank.

Last year, Schneiderman gave the funds Stern raised to charity when his name first arose in the Smith case, and his office called Stern a "community activist" and one among "thousands" of Rockland backers. His office declined to comment Wednesday on the claim he had vouched for Stern.

The disclosure about Schneiderman came after prosecutors told the jury that Smith and his co-defendants -- former Republican City Councilman Dan Halloran and former Queens GOP leader Vincent Tabone -- betrayed a "public trust" by trying to game an election.

"It's about a man who wanted to be mayor, the bribes he was willing to pay, and the men who were ready, willing and able to take them," prosecutor Douglas Bloom said in his opening statement.

The government alleges that Smith, who needed county GOP leaders' support to get on the ballot, offered to steer $500,000 in state funds to the government operatives if they would pay bribes to Tabone and others. Halloran is accused of being an intermediary paid to help set it up.

"Smith tried to buy the signatures he needed to get on the ballot, and he didn't do it alone," said Bloom, who told jurors the evidence would include dozens of secretly recorded conversations and testimony from former Bronx GOP leader Joseph Savino, who has pleaded guilty.

Shargel argued that Smith was an innocent man and never took or gave cash to anyone, and was entrapped by an informant he approached to raise money, who tried to "make a crime out of no crime." He said Smith, who is running for re-election, will testify at trial. Halloran's lawyer, Vinoo Verghese, said his client -- who is allegedly caught on tape saying that money greases the wheels in politics -- has a "big mouth," but was the victim of a scenario created by the FBI that looked worse than it was.

He said Halloran was trying to get chairmen to back Smith because he thought a black candidate would broaden the appeal of the Republican party, and the $20,000 he received was for work as a "political consultant," not a cut of a bribe.

The attorney for Tabone, who allegedly was given $25,000 in cash outside Sparks Steak House in Manhattan, is scheduled to give his opening Thursday.

Defense lawyer Leo Ahearn told reporters he will argue the money was a retainer for legal services, and that informant Stern was "one of the greatest liars and scammers of all time."

More news