ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) - A federal prosecutor behind the convictions of some of the state’s most powerful lawmakers on Monday took his anti-corruption fight to the heart of a state government he again criticized for a “rancid culture” of cronyism, venality and insider politics.
Speaking in Albany, New York’s capital city, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said corruption has degraded the state’s democracy. Bharara, who rocked Albany last year with successful prosecutions of Democratic former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Republican ex-Senate Leader Dean Skelos, laid some blame at the feet of otherwise innocent lawmakers who allowed that culture to fester.
“You think no one knew Sheldon Silver was corrupt before he was put in handcuffs? Not a chance,” he told an audience at an event sponsored by a local public radio station. “Good people knew, and yet they didn’t do anything.”
In prosecuting Silver and Skelos, who had denied the allegations against them, Bharara emerged as the loudest critic of what he termed Albany’s “cauldron of corruption” and became an antagonist of Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, whose administration he has investigated.
The rare visit to Albany did nothing to blunt his criticism on Monday. Bharara, U.S. attorney for New York’s Southern District, said that while many lawmakers are honest people who work on behalf of the public, they did too little to challenge the leadership of Silver and Skelos, who he said “threw it all away by forgetting that their jobs were not meant to be vehicles for massive personal profit.”
He noted that many lawmakers initially stood by Silver and Skelos after their arrests and engaged in “whispered whining” about how he didn’t understand politics or was making Albany look bad.
“What’s making the state Legislature in Albany look bad is the state Legislature in Albany,” he said, promising his office would continue its efforts to expose corruption.
Cuomo and Bharara attended the swearing-in ceremony of New York’s new chief judge, Janet DiFiore. They did not appear to speak to each other, and Cuomo later said he had no plans to meet with Bharara.
Bharara’s office investigated Cuomo’s administration for its handling of an anti-corruption commission, which Cuomo abruptly shut down as part of a deal with Skelos and Silver. Bharara’s office said last month it had found insufficient evidence of a crime.
Cuomo, asked about the visit by his sometime nemesis, on Monday defended his own handling of corruption, noting he is calling for a limit on lawmakers’ outside income and has worked to pass other reforms to make it more difficult for lawmakers to personally profit from their positions.
“If they break the law they should be caught. They should be convicted,” he said. “… Do I believe that political corruption will ever stop? No.”
Bharara also addressed a meeting of the state’s Conference of Mayors, telling those assembled that corruption in the state Capitol can seep down to local communities, diverting attention and resources that should be going to bridges, roads, schools and other basic government services.
Later in the day, Bharara was asked whether he wanted to seek higher office. In response, he noted that one of his favorite musicians was playing in Albany on Monday night.
“Bruce Springsteen is in town,” he said. “I was not ‘Born to Run.’”
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