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."
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.
On July 2, in response to this critical mass of scandals, saying the legislature wasn't doing enough, Governor Andrew Cuomo and Attorney General Eric Schneiderman named a 25-member Moreland Act Commission to look into violations of state election laws by the legislature. The panel included county prosecutors and other luminaries. Cuomo described it as a "powerful step" to reverse the raging river of corruption cases. He formed the commission after the legislature rejected his plan to appoint a special prosecutor to look into election law violations. The panel has subpoena power and can refer its findings for prosecution.
In an op-ed published July 8 in the New York Daily News, Cuomo called the commission part of a "one-two punch" against corruption that includes the first-ever public disclosure by legislators of their outside income and assets. "It is essential that trust and credibility be restored," Cuomo wrote. "These actions provide the foundation necessary to rebuild the public trust."
The disclosure forms, which are posted online at the state ethics board website (jcope.ny.gov), are interesting in that some are carefully typed and others are hastily scrawled out. The forms are notable not so much for the actual information they provide but for the fact that such a basic aspect of public accountability was never addressed before.
The governor declared that the panel was necessary to restore public confidence: "Go to any person on the street and say, 'Do you think there's a question with corruption in the legislature?' The answer is yes."
Schneiderman, meanwhile, also waxed indignant, saying the state's campaign finance laws were "something of a national embarrassment."
And Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice cited "a few bad apples, a couple bad laws, and a bunch of loose rules" that "can threaten the progress and undermine the confidence that people have in their government."
A cynic might opine that the first response of government to an embarrassment is always to form a commission and then throw a press conference touting its future effectiveness. "Forming commissions are how officials stall or obscure facts from the public," noted Leonard Levitt in his July 8 NYPD Confidential column.
Indeed, the panel is supposed to produce a preliminary report by the end of 2013 and a final report by the end of 2014. Pardon us if we don't get too excited. And at 25 members, the body already seems a little unwieldy.
The reaction from the legislature was telling. Senate leader Dean Skelos warned that the commission should not indulge in a "witch-hunt" of lawmakers, though a witch-hunt doesn't seem like such a bad idea. A spokesman for Assembly Speaker Shelly Silver made it sound as if the legislature were above the fray: "Campaign finance reform has always been one of the assembly majority's top priorities." Has it really?
Amid all the high-toned rhetoric, it emerged that five members of the commission had themselves violated election laws in minor ways.
One of the central characters in this parade of corruption was Bronx Assemblyman Nelson Castro, who was a pure creation of the Bronx Democratic machine. The county Democratic chairman, Jose Rivera, tapped him as district leader in 2008 for the 86th District in the western section of the borough. Since the Dems are so dominant in the Bronx, Rivera could basically guarantee that Castro would be elected to the Assembly.
Castro, a 41-year-old native of the Dominican Republic, had no illusions about his sudden rise in politics. He told New York magazine that he was chosen "out of a hat." He had very little political experience. He labored as a community outreach worker and worked for a few months as chief of staff for another Bronx assemblyman, Adriano Espaillat.
He also had a criminal record—a grand larceny arrest for taking unemployment benefits while working (he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor), another grand larceny arrest in Michigan, and an arrest for driving with a revoked license and failing to pay $3,000 in traffic fines. In addition, he was caught in voter fraud allegations—10 people registered to vote claiming they lived in Castro's one-bedroom apartment.
Somehow, those issues didn't seem to concern the party leaders.
The voter fraud allegations percolated for a while and then led to Castro's indictment for perjury in 2009. The indictment remained sealed as Castro agreed to wear a wire and inform on his legislative colleagues. In other words, he was an informer for most of his tenure.
When the indictment and Castro's betrayal of his colleagues became public earlier this year, U.S. Attorney Bharara said, "Here we go again. This has become something of a habit."
One of those people allegedly caught on Castro's wire was another young Bronx assemblyman, Eric Stevenson. While Castro was anointed by the party leaders, Stevenson drew his power from family. He was a third-generation politician, a member of a political dynasty that included his father, longtime district leader Eric Stevenson Jr., and his grandfather, Assemblyman Eric Stevenson Sr. His first attempts at winning his grandfather's seat, first from Gloria Davis and then from Michael Benjamin, fell short.
In the meantime, he served on the local community board, labored as a community coordinator for former borough president and failed mayoral candidate Fernando Ferrer, and Ferrer's successor, Adolfo Carrión. He worked for City Council Speaker Christine Quinn just before he won the assembly position. And now he was presiding over one of the poorest districts in the state.
His campaign literature announced that "reforming a community left in 'dire straits' continues to this day a work in progress for the Stevenson family—three generations later," and he claimed his name was "synonymous with courage, leadership, and hope."
Just three years into his tenure, all of that went to hell. In early May, Stevenson was indicted for allegedly accepting $20,000 in bribes from the operators of adult day-care centers in his district. He supported legislation that would get them state money, steered his constituents toward the centers, and sponsored bills that would have blocked competing centers from opening. The federal complaint paints scenes of the day-care operators handing envelopes full of cash to Stevenson in Bronx diners. He was supposedly reading the Bible when he was cuffed.
One of his constituents told the Daily News, almost plaintively, "I always thought he was on the up and up . . . He seemed all right."
An incredible footnote to this sad tale is that one of Stevenson's predecessors in the 79th District, Gloria Davis, was also indicted for taking bribes. She was nailed for bribery back in 2003 for accepting $24,000 to grease the wheels for a contractor who wanted an $800,000 contract to build a drug treatment center in the district. She had also been taking free transportation to and from Albany from a private jail contractor. She got 90 days in prison and five years of probation.
If Castro and Stevenson were products of the machine, then shouldn't political outsiders be immune to corruption? Let's examine the case of Shirley Huntley, who took on and beat a machine politician.
Huntley came to politics fairly late in life. She was 55 when she was elected in 1993 to the Queens Community School Board 28, an area divided between heavily white Forest Hills and Rego Park and the heavily black neighborhood of South Jamaica that was often at odds along racial lines.
She rose to chair of the school board in 1996, where she had to deal with racial tensions between black parents and white teachers. In one notorious incident, a white librarian used a racial epithet against a student, sparking months of fraught meetings.
Huntley, who once described herself as a "rebel," was not above playing on racial tensions herself, accusing political opponents at one point of trying to rig the school board elections in favor of a white slate. During a July 1996 board meeting, when a white colleague asked speakers to raise their hands, Huntley mocked her, saying, "Raise your hands, slaves!" She was also accused of threatening a Hispanic board member who voted with the white board members.
In 2006, she used her school board profile as a springboard to run against the machine incumbent—state Senator Ada Smith. By then, Smith, whom the tabloids dubbed "The Wild Woman of Albany," had been called to the carpet by colleagues for screaming at her aides. She had also been accused of threatening an aide with a butcher knife, attacking someone with a garbage can cover, and tear-gassing a police officer.
Smith's district was a chaotic rectangle made up of the black middle-class neighborhoods of Rosedale and Springfield Gardens and parts of the more Caucasian environs of South Ozone Park, with a little of Jamaica Bay thrown in. Despite Smith's image problems, Huntley won in 2006 with a margin of 102 votes out of 10,500 cast. It was a surprise victory for a relative newcomer over the choice of the Queens Democratic machine.
Huntley claimed she wanted to focus on affordable housing, education, and medical issues. At one point, hoping to call attention to predatory lenders, she deliberately defaulted on her own mortgage, though she backed out before suffering any penalties. The PR ploy backfired when it emerged that she had previously borrowed several times from predatory lenders.
When disgraced former Councilman Allan Jennings, who had sexually harassed staffers, challenged her for re-election, Huntley declared, "Any person with morals or values wouldn't vote for Allan." Jennings lost.
She was next notable for initially voting against same-sex marriage legislation, and later voting in favor of the legislation, which was passed in 2011. By then, she was already under investigation.
Throughout her political career, Huntley had been running a nonprofit organization called the Parents Workshop, which obtained state funding and was run by her niece, Lynn Smith, and one of her aides, Patricia Savage. The group supposedly advised parents on how to navigate the city's public school system.
A second nonprofit called the Parents Information Network employed Huntley's daughter, Pamela Corley, as president. Corley was also her campaign treasurer. The treasurer of the nonprofit group was listed in 2009 as Norman George, who also worked as a paid Huntley campaign employee.
Probers also looked into a second earmark of $70,000 for another group called the Young Leaders Institute, which was run by her top fundraiser, Van Holmes. That organization's tax returns were basically blank from 2004 to 2011.
Prosecutors with the state attorney general's office concluded that the nonprofit was phony, and the state money was used not to help poor parents but to line the pockets of the people running it. Huntley was charged with tampering with evidence, falsifying business records, and conspiracy for her role in obtaining state funds for the charity.
The indictment charged that in an effort to hide the scheme, Huntley helped create fake, backdated letters from another nonprofit, the Southern Queens Park Association, whose president was also arrested. Flyers advertising sessions for parents were created, as were letters from made-up clients. Huntley suggested briefly that the indictment was "politically motivated," but only briefly, because the other shoe was about to drop.
Huntley, now 75, agreed to help prosecutors nab her colleagues, just as Castro had. The feds wired her sitting room for sound and video, and she lured nine of her fellow legislators there and tried to get them to talk about misdeeds. How successful she was remains to be seen, but when the list of pols became public, they fell over themselves running in the opposite direction.
State Senator José Peralta, a claimed reformer who was one of the people taped by Huntley, said he was "confident" authorities would find nothing. State Senator Eric Adams invoked his law enforcement career: "I believe deeply in transparency and the pursuit of justice," he said. State Senator Ruth Hassell-Thompson said she was "perplexed" to be on the list.
Huntley seemed to revel in the publicity following her indictment. Giving multiple press interviews, she insisted she had no regrets about turning on her colleagues, saying she "sleeps very well" and has no worries about serving her time in prison. (She was sentenced to a year and a day.)
And like Castro, Huntley also blasted the culture of corruption in Albany. "It's all about money and power," she said. "I don't think most of them give a tinker's damn about their constituents."
A fairly shocking statement, coming from an indicted pol who has nothing to gain from making it, and a sign of just how far Albany has to climb.
In the movie Margin Call, Jeremy Irons, playing a finance mogul dealing with the latest economic meltdown, recalls the long history of market collapses: "It's certainly no different today than it's ever been. 1637, 1797, 1819, '37, '57, '84, 1901, '07, '29, 1937, 1974, 1987—Jesus, didn't that fuck me up good—'92, '97, 2000, and whatever we want to call this. It's all just the same thing over and over; we can't help ourselves."
Albany—like Wall Street—has a long and robust history of scandal, followed by the inevitable reform, followed by scandal again, and then reform. Whether Cuomo's effort to clean things up will follow the same pattern, or forge a new direction, remains to be seen.
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