- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 21, 2014

NEW YORK (AP) - A former Democratic state assemblyman convicted of accepting $22,000 in bribes from businessmen was sentenced Wednesday to three years in prison.

U.S. District Court Judge Loretta A. Preska announced the sentence in a Manhattan courtroom packed with supporters of Eric Stevenson, who was convicted by a jury in January on bribery charges.

An emotional Stevenson, his hands over his heart, asked the judge for a fair sentence but said he understood that he needed punishment and needed to improve himself.

“I’m sorry it ever happened,” he said.

The judge also ordered Stevenson, who represented the Bronx, to forfeit $22,000, the amount of the bribes he accepted in 2012 and early 2013.

The sentence was below the four to five years that prosecutors had requested.

The judge said incarceration was necessary for the “betrayal of an elected official’s core function,” a reference to bribes Stevenson, 47, accepted to introduce a bill in the state Legislature to ban competitors from opening near a Bronx adult center.

A group of businessmen for the center bribed Stevenson several times.

Defense lawyer Murray Richman argued that Stevenson repeatedly tried to reject the money but succumbed because his $72,000 annual salary left him in need of cash. He said Stevenson was nearly broke, with only $3,000.

The judge responded by citing three instances when Stevenson was caught on tape soliciting the bribes. In one, she noted, he asked the businessmen to put together “a nice little package for me.” In another, she added, he bluntly said: “I want a blessing in place.”

The judge also rejected Richman’s claim that race played a factor in federal sentencing guidelines because Stevenson, who’s black, faced more time in prison than the wealthier white men who paid him bribes. She said Congress made clear that public officials who betray their constituents face enhanced prison sentences.

Outside court, Richman did not criticize the sentence the judge handed down.

“She listened and felt he was a person who had done more good than harm,” Richman said.

Stevenson declined to speak outside court.

In a release, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said: “In shameless pursuit of profit, Eric Stevenson took bribes and put his own personal interests before those of his constituents. Now instead of serving the public he will be serving time behind prison walls.”