By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
What trips up most crooks, investigators say, is a firm belief that they're too smart to get caught. That had to be the working rationale behind Anthony Seminerio's alleged life of crime. How else to explain why an otherwise savvy veteran politician would keep chasing bribes right on the assembly chamber floor in Albany—even after his good pal and former colleague Brian McLaughlin had pled guilty to his own massive shakedown schemes?
The two legislators were good friends, and when the assembly was in session, they'd often dine together in Albany. "I'm having dinner with Tony Seminerio!" McLaughlin would joyously bark into his cell phone when aides tried to reach him in the evenings. That ended in 2006, when McLaughlin quit the assembly and was arrested, charged with stealing $2.2 million. He faced up to 30 years in federal prison. That is, unless he came up with some better ideas. He did, and one of them seems to have been Tony Seminerio.
For a politician whose district includes Ozone Park—John Gotti's old Mafia haunt—the roly-poly Seminerio was remarkably gullible. He again sat down with his now-indicted chum and gabbed about how he had become his own lobbyist. "I was doing favors for these sons of bitches there, you know, they were making thousands. 'Screw you—from now on, I'm the consultant,' " Seminerio was recorded as saying. An undercover FBI agent posing as a favor-seeking businessman was soon introduced to the assemblyman, who was only too eager to help. He walked the agent right onto the chamber floor and took him to lunch with another influential legislator, accepting a $5,000 check for his trouble.
Seminerio was arrested and arraigned last Tuesday, accused of taking some $500,000 in bribes. McLaughlin had been scheduled for months to be sentenced for his own crimes on Friday. The date was adjourned at the last minute, with prosecutors saying they had to work out unexplained details.
In announcing Seminerio's arrest, U.S. Attorney Michael Garcia pointedly noted that the legislature's still-porous ethics rules allow members to list outside employment without naming their actual clients. Seminerio had properly noted his firm, Marc Consultants, on his financial-disclosure report. No other details were required. Former senate majority leader Joe Bruno enjoyed the same privacy about his business dealings until a separate FBI probe revealed that he was blithely advising powerful unions about where to invest their funds. Bruno is gone from the legislature, but that probe continues.
Within hours of Seminerio's arrest, Albany leaders began the usual defensive maneuvers, agreeing that new ethics rules might be considered. The last lawmaker to seriously press this agenda was disgraced ex-governor Eliot Spitzer. The luv gov is now awaiting his own verdict from Garcia's office as to whether it will charge him for the secret money transfers he made to pay for flings with high-priced hookers.
But before he short-circuited his own administration, Spitzer won a new ethics law last year—the first in ages. Among its changes were seemingly rudimentary reforms that Albany's pols had somehow sidestepped for years. For instance, Spitzer's Ethics Reform Act of 2007 included for the first time a law that makes it illegal for state officials to hire their own relatives. Unchecked nepotism has been considered bad form for hundreds of years, but it was never illegal in Albany until Spitzer's law. "There wasn't anything like that before," says Melissa Ryan, director of the state's Legislative Ethics Commission. "This was brand-new."
Still, the new law is narrowly tailored: It bars any legislator from participating in the hiring or promotion of a relative. But it doesn't mean the legislator's colleagues can't handle the favor for them. This helps explain why a 28-year-old man named Owen Johnson Jr.—whose father is one of the senate's aging and powerful lions—holds a $65,000-a-year position as a research assistant in what the senate tellingly dubs its "Member Services Department."
"There is no statute that prohibits his employment," says Scott Reif, a spokesman for Dean Skelos, who is Bruno's successor as senate majority leader and who represents a neighboring Long Island district to Owen Johnson Sr. "He doesn't work for Senator Johnson—directly or indirectly," Reif adds.
Right now, Johnson Jr.'s chief job appears to be occasionally answering phones at the Bay Ridge office of his dad's friend and colleague, Brooklyn state senator Marty Golden. He's good at it, too. "Senator Golden's office, Owen speaking," he says brightly. He has limited patience, however, when the inquiries concern himself. Before a caller could finish confirming Johnson's identity last week, he'd already hung up. Seconds later, another office mate insisted he was in meetings and not to be disturbed. Golden also dodged questions about his office aide, just as he did Voice inquiries last month about how he came to spend $200,000 in campaign funds at the catering hall owned by his brother, run by his wife, and where the senator is the landlord.
One of the questions Golden and his aide ducked concerned Johnson Jr.'s arrest in April for assaulting his roommate. The roommate was also arrested, and police chalked it up as a domestic dispute. Earlier this month, a judge granted a temporary order of protection that bars Johnson from bothering his now ex-friend. But at least Johnson's was a crime of passion—not greed, like most of the legislature's sinners.
These days, being an elected state official means never having to answer tough questions, unless there's an election going on. And no one dares run against Golden any more. The Democratic Party has given up challenging him, as have those terriers at the Working Families Party who insist the Republican senator is invulnerable.
Owen Johnson Sr., who has represented a chunk of the south shore of Long Island from West Babylon to Sayville since 1972, also gets a free electoral ride from Democratic officials. In exchange for a non-aggression treaty in which the local GOP doesn't challenge Democratic incumbents, Suffolk County's Democratic Party simply stopped running against Johnson. The only one insisting that Johnson deserves a race has been a stubborn 75-year-old Korean War vet named Jim McDonald, who ran against Johnson in his first race 36 years ago. McDonald ran again two years ago, when he managed to get 40 percent of the vote—without his own party's support. "I kept seeing where the Democrats wouldn't challenge him. They disenfranchised 300,000 people in this district," says McDonald.
Johnson's clout stems from both his chairmanship of the finance committee—one of the most powerful posts in the senate—and his seniority. The result is that he gets to bring home the bacon—a lot of it. This year, Johnson was the senate's fourth-largest pork purveyor, winning $3.2 million in state funds for his favorite local causes. Among them was $65,000 to help the Constantino Brumidi lodge of the Loyal Sons of Italy repave its parking lot. A spokesman for Johnson said the senator declined to answer any questions, including how his son came to be hired.
As for Tony Seminerio, he pled not guilty, surrendered his passport, and posted a $500,000 bond in the form of his Ozone Park home. He has to be back in court next month.