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Editorial: Preet Bharara can't clean up NY alone

United States Attorney for the Southern District of

United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara announces the unsealing of federal corruption charges against New York State Assemblyman Eric Stevenson and four other defendants during a press conference in the lobby of the office of the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York on Thursday in Manhattan. (April 04, 2013) Credit: Charles Eckert

Federal prosecutor Preet Bharara is suddenly the high sheriff of New York. At the crack of daylight Thursday, he took down another politician, Democratic Assemb. Eric Stevenson of the Bronx, who's accused of pocketing nearly $20,000 in cash to grease the launch of at least two adult day-care centers.

"A show-me-the-money culture in Albany is alive and well," Bharara, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, noted in an understatement. After that news conference, Nelson Castro, a Bronx assemblyman who wore a wire as a cooperating witness in the Stevenson case, resigned his office as part of a plea deal to avoid doing jail time for committing perjury in 2008. In his jaw-dropping statement, Castro revealed he'd been working undercover for city and federal prosecutors for more than three years and indicated he soon would be at the center of even more public corruption cases.

Bharara deserves a standing ovation. A few days ago, his office charged Democratic Sen. Malcolm Smith and Republican City Councilman Daniel Halloran III, both of Queens, and four others in a bribery scheme to get Smith the GOP nomination for mayor -- and the matching public campaign financing funds that go with it.

New York's culture of corruption has never been subtle, but now it seems out of control. Bharara can't clean it up alone.

Perhaps Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo -- who once threatened to investigate the State Legislature with a commission, and said Thursday he would work "to ensure integrity and trust to government" -- can move quickly to push through a package of reforms to slow the sleaze. Can't the Assembly speaker and the Senate majority leaders police their own hallways? An inspector general could review discretionary spending. There is ethical decay under the thick carpets of the fancy chambers in Albany.

Not all elected officials are crooks or ethically challenged. But a shocking number -- at least 30 in the past 13 years -- have left office because of criminal or ethical problems. And some kept getting elected, even after their behavior was revealed, so voters are not totally blameless, either.

Assemb. Vito Lopez (D-Brooklyn) was accused of harassment by four former female staffers, and taxpayers picked up the cost of settling two of their lawsuits. As the state continues its ethics investigation of him, and amid the likelihood that he might be kicked out of the Assembly, Lopez has quietly formed a campaign committee to run for City Council.

The wiretaps in the Stevenson case are damning. In one conversation, Stevenson is said to mention former state Comptroller Alan Hevesi, who was recently released from prison after taking kickbacks from operators of funds into which he invested state pension money: "If half the people up here in Albany was ever caught for what they do . . . they . . . would probably be in the same place as Hevesi."

This disgrace can't continue. We deserve honest answers about the rot within our political culture. And we deserve a round of reform like we've never seen before. New Yorkers are stuck with a crumbling infrastructure, bad schools, a comatose upstate economy and politicians preoccupied with scheming.

One U.S. attorney can't fix it all. It's time for all of us to clean up the mess.