For decades, the fundamental realities of New York politics have been static. Atop the ceaseless seething of the political ecosystem, a handful of giants reigned supreme: the governor, the senate majority leader, and the assembly speaker. In this stagnant arrangement bloomed such a culture of corruption and profiteering that many New Yorkers despaired of their government ever approaching even a modicum of democratic function.
But even as everyone knew that Albany was rotten to the core, the proverbial Three Men in a Room who ruled New York were untouchable, the very top of the food chain. Were, that is, until a new apex predator arrived in the form of Preet Bharara, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. In a few short months this year, Bharara successfully prosecuted two of the three on corruption charges. Former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos was sentenced to five years in prison, convicted of bribery, extortion, and conspiracy. Former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver caught a twelve-year bid, found guilty of extortion, money laundering, and honest services fraud.
Now Bharara is circling the last remaining giant, Andrew Cuomo, and the governor is scrambling for his own survival. In September, Bharara secured indictments against Joseph Percoco and Todd Howe, two of Cuomo’s closest and longest-serving aides. According to the indictment, Percoco and Howe took bribes (which they referred to, using a code so sophisticated it’s remarkable prosecutors were able to crack it, as “ziti”) in exchange for helping to sluice hundreds of millions of dollars of public money to private companies. Bharara also brought bid-rigging charges against Alain Kaloyeros, the physicist at the State University of New York whom Cuomo put in charge of “Buffalo Billions,” his disastrously unsuccessful plan to revitalize the upstate economy. So far the governor himself has escaped any charges, but Bharara has refused to put Cuomo entirely in the clear, and as the prosecutions against his inner circle progress, it’s anyone’s guess what might unfold. Even if we never see Cuomo in handcuffs, Bharara’s work has shaken the foundations of his fortress, leaving the governor far more vulnerable to challenge in 2018 than he would otherwise have been.
Meanwhile, Bharara has covered the rest of the waterfront, fulfilling the prosecutorial core competency of locking up black and brown kids with inflated gang sweeps, even as he secured an indictment for the single greatest obstacle to reform on Rikers, NYC correction officers union president Norman Seabrook. Bharara’s investigation into the NYPD uncovered a group of high-ranking police officers deep in the pockets of Brooklyn businessmen. In the process, Bharara came within spitting distance of Mayor Bill de Blasio, whose fundraising operation took tens of thousands of dollars from the same execs.
Twenty years ago, Rudy Giuliani leveraged his tenure as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District into two terms as mayor of New York. Whether Bharara has designs on elected office in the future is unclear — he’s notoriously disciplined with his messaging — but if he wanted to run New York, the number of credible opponents outside a jail cell is dropping by the week.