Political Corruption Boils Over in Albany

Machine pols and reformers alike are ensnared

Political Corruption Boils Over in Albany

Shirley Huntley labored in relative obscurity for a decade on a local school board in Queens before she made the jump into state politics in 2006, challenging the machine incumbent, Ada "The Wild Woman of Albany" Smith, for a senate seat in the 10th District.

Smith, by then, had been embarrassed by a series of reports about her conduct toward staff—the legislature had reprimanded her for screaming at her aides, and she had even been convicted of throwing coffee at one of them—but still, few thought Huntley would beat her, since Democratic machine incumbents are almost assured of victory. And yet Huntley did win, by a narrow 102 votes, and came into office touting plans to focus on housing, healthcare, and education.

Eric Stevenson, meanwhile, was Bronx political royalty, a third-generation pol following his father and grandfather into a machine job in the 79th Assembly District, his résumé buttressed by staff jobs with two borough presidents and the City Council Speaker. He spoke of a "passion for serving people" and said his election "fulfilled a longtime ambition."

Shirley Huntley has no regrets about turning in her fellow legislators, saying she “sleeps very well.”
nysenate.gov
Shirley Huntley has no regrets about turning in her fellow legislators, saying she “sleeps very well.”
Anthony Tremmaglia

From their disparate beginnings, both Huntley, the outsider, and Stevenson, the insider, wound up in the same place—staring down the business end of federal corruption indictments. For her part, Huntley was forced to make a deal to wear a wire by authorities, hoping to catch other pols in misconduct.

Stevenson was caught on a separate wiretap characterizing Albany as a cesspool of corruption, perhaps in an effort to justify his own conduct. "Bottom line . . . if half the people up here in Albany were ever caught for what they do . . . they would probably be in jail. So who are they bullshitting?"

Huntley and Stevenson certainly aren't alone. The past eight months have seen one state legislator after another arrested, indicted, or otherwise censured for misdeeds ranging from taking bribes to raiding nonprofits to stealing from the proceeds of foreclosed homes to redirecting state money into their pockets. The list of fallen legislators is so long that it's easy to lose track of the details.

In examining each of the recent indictments, what's perhaps most striking is how mundane and inevitable it all seems, like it's just the cost of doing business. The cases suggest that corruption is so ingrained in the culture of Albany that it ensnares machine candidates and reformers, the young and old, the neophytes and veterans alike.

"They come into office and they lose track of why they are there," says a longtime political operative. "There really isn't a way to vet these people to see whether they have a moral compass."

In April, for example, state Senator Malcolm Smith was slapped with bribery, extortion, and fraud charges for a scheme that is almost artful in its pure brazenness. Smith was accused of arranging $40,000 in bribes to two Republican county leaders so his name would be on their mayoral ballot line. City Councilman Dan Halloran was also indicted in the Smith case for taking bribes to act as the go-between. (Halloran wanted to be named deputy police commissioner if Smith won.)

"Smith tried to bribe his way to a shot at Gracie Mansion—Smith drew up the game plan and Halloran essentially quarterbacked that drive by finding party chairmen who were wide open to receiving bribes," said U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who has become a kind of angel of destruction on the Albany political landscape. "After the string of public corruption scandals that we have brought to light, many may rightly resign themselves to the sad truth that perhaps the most powerful special interest in politics is self-interest."

State Senator John Sampson—a former chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee who once sought to become Brooklyn district attorney—was indicted for stealing more than $400,000 from the sales of foreclosed homes that he was supposed to oversee and protect, and then lying to investigators about it. The money went to finance that campaign for district attorney. (In 2009, Sampson portrayed himself as a housing crisis reformer, saying, "Ensuring that people do not lose their homes is of paramount importance.")

In yet a third brazen scheme, Pedro Espada Jr., the former senate Democratic majority leader, was convicted this year of robbing a network of nonprofit medical clinics that he controlled and spending the money on a lavish lifestyle—including deliveries of hand-shucked lobsters, spa visits, and a ghostwriter to tell his life story.

William Boyland Jr. was indicted for soliciting $250,000 in bribes to pay legal expenses in a separate court proceeding, and then again for steering public money to a favored nonprofit, which used some of the money to promote Boyland's campaign events. His chief of staff was charged, too.

Vito Lopez, a powerful assemblyman from Brooklyn, was crippled by sexual harassment allegations and a sleazy secret payoff by the legislature to his accusers. He agreed to step down at the end of his term.

Carl Kruger, the former chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, is in the second year of a seven-year prison sentence on a bribery conviction. And who could forget Joe Bruno, the Republican majority leader in the senate for 14 years, convicted of accepting bribes? The verdict was vacated and an expected retrial is pending. Others to fall in recent years include Hiram Monserrate and Brian McLaughlin. The list goes on and on.

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