- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 6, 2016

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) - State legislators need to be vigilant against corruption and avoid the temptation of shielding colleagues caught up in scandal, a federal prosecutor from New York said Wednesday during a visit to Kentucky.

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, whose investigations recently toppled two legislative leaders in New York, said the role of preventing corruption in statehouses is ultimately up to lawmakers, not prosecutors.

“If you want to prevent corruption, don’t enable it,” Bharara said during an hourlong presentation to Kentucky lawmakers. “If you want to deter corrupt members, don’t become their willing accomplices.”

Bharara spoke to a roomful of legislators during an ethics session on the second day of the state General Assembly’s 60-day session. The ethics refreshers are part of the legacy from the Operation Boptrot influence-buying scandal that rocked the Kentucky legislature in the early 1990s. The federal sting netted 21 state lawmakers and lobbyists for bribery and influence peddling involving horse racing legislation.

Bharara had harsh words for New York’s legislature, which he said has been by plagued by a “rancid culture” of bribery and kickbacks. Bharara’s office has won convictions against a number of state lawmakers, most notably former Speaker Sheldon Silver and ex-Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos.

The New York legislature includes many “honorable and ethical people,” the prosecutor said, but lawmakers have done a poor job of self-policing against corruption.

“There’s been a lot of enabling of corruption up there,” Bharara said.

“A lot of pain and suffering and loss of reputation could have been saved in each and every one of those cases if the good people had just done something. If the good people had just sounded the alarm,” he added.

Lawmakers can combat corruption by supporting ethics committees, welcoming scrutiny and refusing to protect corrupt colleagues, he said.

“Looking the other way is not leadership,” he said, referring to the problems in New York. “Blaming the prosecutors is not leadership. Kicking the can is not leadership. Accepting lies and half-truths is not leadership. Making excuses is not leadership. Whining is not leadership.”

Afterward, Republican Sen. Dan Seum, the majority caucus chairman, said the prosecutor’s sobering message to lawmakers was one they need to hear.

“I’m constantly reminding my caucus … that we have to conduct ourselves in the right way,” he said.

John Schaaf, executive director of the Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission, reminded lawmakers: “There are a lot of people watching your actions.”

Lawmakers encountering potential corruption among colleagues, he said, can contact the commission to discuss the situation. If the action seems like it might be illegal, the commission could discuss with the lawmaker “how to pursue it, who to refer it to or what to do about it.”

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