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Bharara: Albany's 'three men in a room' system fosters distrust

Preet Bharara, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District

Preet Bharara, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, at a news conference after the arrest of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, on federal corruption charges on Jan. 22, 2015 in Manhattan. Photo Credit: Anthony Lanzilote

A day after federal agents put handcuffs on one of New York's most powerful lawmakers, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara Friday denounced Albany's political culture that concentrates power with "the proverbial three men in a room."

The long-standing practice -- under which nearly all major budgeting and lawmaking is conducted behind closed doors by the governor, Senate leader and Assembly speaker -- fosters an opaque climate that is resistant to reform, Bharara said.

For those inside the room, Bharara said, "you can easily forget who put you there in the first place."

One of those three men -- Sheldon Silver, speaker since 1994 -- was charged on Thursday in federal court with taking millions of dollars in kickbacks and bribes to influence laws and government funding.

"If yesterday's charges are proven true," Bharara told an audience at New York Law School, "then at least one of the proverbial three men in a room is deeply compromised." He added: "How can we possibly trust that anything that gets decided in Albany and imposed upon the rest of us is on the level?"

Silver, who is free on a $200,000 personal recognizance bond, has said he will be vindicated. He remains speaker.

Bharara ridiculed the Albany arrangement that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo jokingly described as "the three amigos" just one day before Silver's arrest.

"Why three men? Can there be a woman? Do they always have to be white? How small is the room that they can only fit three men? Is it three men in a closet? Are there cigars? Can they have Cuban cigars now? After a while, doesn't it get a little gamy in that room?" he said. The Silver case, along with others he has pursued against legislators, shows that Albany is a "cauldron of corruption," he said.

Bharara also made clear his skepticism over Cuomo's explanations on why he abruptly shut down an anti-corruption panel last year. The Silver indictment emanated in part from a short-lived commission that Cuomo created in 2013 under the state's Moreland Act.

"Various people, I think over time," Bharara said in an oblique reference to Cuomo, "have given maybe 18 or 19 different explanations, depending on the time, as to what its powers were, what its level of independence was, or should be, as a practical matter or a legal matter, so I'm done sort of analyzing that."

Cuomo said when he created the commission that it was independent and could investigate anyone or anything, and then later said its jurisdiction and scope was limited. When he ended the commission's work, Cuomo said he did so because the legislature had agreed to ethics reforms.

On Thursday, Cuomo told the New York Daily News after Silver's arrest, "If anything, it vindicates what happened."

Cuomo's office did not return messages seeking comment on Bharara's remarks.

The triumvirate has its origins in the legislature's pushback to the powerful governorship of Al Smith nearly a century ago, said Rob Polner, who co-wrote the book "Three Men in a Room: The Inside Story of Power and Betrayal in an American Statehouse." Lawmakers rallied around their leaders in an attempt to counterbalance the executive branch.Also Friday, another powerful state politician who was acquitted last year of federal charges similar to Silver's said federal prosecutors are "out of control."

"They run amok. They run out of control," former State Senate leader Joseph Bruno -- once one of the "three men" -- said on "Live from the State Capitol" on WGDJ-AM in Albany, according to Time Warner Cable News. "They lead people like Shelly around in handcuffs -- why? Is he violent?" Bruno said.

Bruno, a Republican who led the State Senate from 1998 to 2008, originally was convicted but then was cleared in retrial after the U.S. Supreme Court narrowed the statute under which he was originally found guilty.

With Yancey Roy

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