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Ciolli: Malcolm Smith scandal is fertile ground to expose NY corruption

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara speaks at a news

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara speaks at a news conference announcing the unsealing of federal bribery and corruption charges against state Sen. Malcolm Smith, New York City Council member Daniel Halloran, Bronx County Republican Party chairman Joseph Savino, Queens County Republican Party vice chairman Vincent Tabone, Spring Valley Mayor Noramie Jasmin and Spring Valley Deputy Mayor Joseph Desmaret. (April 2, 2013) Credit: Craig Ruttle

The news that there are more than a few politicians in New York with a price tag is not surprising. What's shocking is that the felony charges filed yesterday against one of the state's top-ranking Albany Democrats, Sen. Malcolm Smith of Queens, is the distinct possibility that  federal prosecutors might finally have a way to penetrate this culture of corruption.

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said as much Tuesday morning in his news conference in announcing the arrests of Smith and Republican City Councilman Daniel Halloran of Queens, as well as the Bronx GOP party chairman, the Queens GOP vice chairman and two Rockland County officials. Charges against the six — which include bribery, extortion, and wire and mail fraud — stem from Smith's delusional ideas that he could run for New York City mayor on the Republican line without changing his registration.

"Not every state legislature has this degree of criminality that's been exposed,” Bharara said.

So where can Bharara — who says the culture of corruption is "pervasive" — take the case? At first look, pretty far.

The FBI had undercover agents working the investigation, and there's a "cooperating witness" and who pleaded guilty last month in return for more lenient treatment. That's the makings of a strong case.

And the charges were filed by the U.S. attorney in White Plains. That’s a venue in Bharara’s territory where the jurors aren't as hostile to prosecutors as they tend of be in New York City. So if Smith and Holloran are looking at 45 years in prison, there are good odds that they will start singing.

As Halloran is quoted in the criminal complaint, "That's our politicians in New York; they're all like that. ... You can't do anything without the ——— money."

Smith has already signed up Gerald Shargel, one of the best criminal defense attorneys in the city, and it is likely that the other defense lawyers with experience in official corruption cases will have their picks of prominent city and state players by the end of the day. Anyone who tried to pitch Smith a shady deal in the last few years might want to lawyer up.

Announcing the indictments, Bharara said to reporters, "Malcolm Smith tried to bribe his way to City Hall. Malcolm in the middle!"

The U.S. attorney’s "Malcolm in the middle" line was clever, but one doubts that it was said to amuse headline writers.

Smith's involvement in the failed bid 2010 by former Gov. David A. Paterson to bring a racino to Aqueduct (the franchise was later awarded to the multinational gambling operator Genting, which now operates Resorts World Casino at the track) is still on the books, and so are a few other FBI investigations into Smith's dealings.

An FBI subpoena of Smith’s State Senate files, also in 2010, asked for records on a taxpayer-funded Queens nonprofit that was was also linked to U.S. Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-St. Albans). Meeks, in an endorsement interview with Newsday last fall, said nothing had come of the investigation and he considered the matter closed.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who has stepped back from his plan to legalize full casino gambling in New York because of his fears of corruption, commented about Smith's arrest after an event in Buffalo Tuesday.

"I hope he fully cooperates with the investigation and I hope the investigation is thorough and speedy and gets to the facts," Cuomo said.