Behind the Bribery Indictment in New York City

Billy House

Tuesday's arrest of a state Democratic senator and five other Republican officials in what authorities say was a conspiracy to get the senator on the New York City GOP’s mayoral ballot was the culmination of undercover work mainly by two individuals.

Both were working for the FBI--one was a cooperating witness and the other was an FBI agent who posed as a wealthy real-estate developer.

The activities they uncovered and documented are being described by officials as one of the biggest political scandals in New York City in recent years, coming as the Big Apple is set to elect a successor this November to three-term Mayor Michael Bloomberg in a race that is seen as wide open.

“Today’s charges demonstrate, once again, that a show-me-the-money culture seems to pervade every level of New York government,” said Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. He said in a statement that the case “describes an unappetizing smorgasbord of graft and greed involving six officials who together built a corridor of corruption stretching from Queens and the Bronx to Rockland County and all the way up to Albany itself.”

During a later news conference, George Venizelos, the FBI’s New York assistant director in charge, explained that the root of the case was Democratic state Sen. Malcolm Smith’s need for the blessing of three New York City Republican Party chairmen to run for mayor on the GOP line. As a result, he “engaged in the services” of the cooperating witness and the undercover agent to arrange for bribes to get those approvals, Venizelos alleged.

“The fact is, while the [cooperating witness] and the undercover [FBI agent] did great work, they did not have to twist any arms. The defendants were eager to take bribes or have bribes paid on their behalf,” Venizelos said.

Charged in the plot along with Smith are New York City Councilman Dan Halloran; Bronx GOP Chairman Joseph Savino; Queens GOP Chairman Vincent Tabone; Spring Valley Mayor Noramie Jasmin; and Deputy Mayor Joseph Desmaret. Venizelos said the six were involved in a total of three bribery schemes that saw tens of thousands of dollars change hands.  (Here is the federal complaint, unsealed Tuesday morning.)

In exchange for helping arrange for Smith to pay bribes to get the approvals to run on the Republican line for mayor, Venizelos said the FBI’s undercover agent and the cooperating witness were promised a half-million dollars in state transportation funding for their “Spring Valley real estate project.”

Halloran, the city councilman, was paid more than $20,000 to arrange bribe payments to Bronx Republican Chairman Savino and Queens Republican Vice Chairman Tabone, according to the federal complaint. (In New York state, authorization known as a Wilson-Pakula letter is required from party officials for a candidate not enrolled in that party to run as a candidate on its line.)

After a series of meetings to negotiate the price for their approval, Savino and Tabone each met with Halloran and the undercover agent—at separate times on Valentine’s Day, in the same restaurant—to receive their payoffs from the undercover, the complaint alleged.

“This was Valentine’s Day, but the way to their hearts wasn’t a box of chocolates or a dozen roses. It was cold hard cash in an envelope,” Venizelos said.

When Tabone, the Queens Republican vice chairman, was asked if he could deliver the Wilson-Pakula letter, he boasted to the undercover agent, “Nobody else runs the party. I run the party,” according to Venizelos.

Tabone even patted down the undercover agent to see if he was wearing a recording device, but did not detect one. “He was—but Tabone was less skilled at conducting a pat-down than he was at conducting a shakedown,” said Venizelos.

In addition to the money he took for acting as go-between for Smith, Halloran, a former police officer, is accused of also taking more than $20,000 in bribes and illegal campaign contributions to steer $80,000 in city-council money to the cooperating witness and the undercover agent for a no-work “consulting contract.”

“As alleged, Senator Malcolm Smith tried to bribe his way to a shot at Gracie Mansion–Smith drew up the game plan and Councilman Halloran essentially quarterbacked that drive by finding party chairmen who were wide open to receiving bribes,” Bharara said.

Meanwhile, the same federal cooperating witness and the undercover agent were also involved in a matter just north of New York City in nearby Rockland County, where FBI officials say Spring Valley Mayor Noramie Jasmin and Deputy Mayor Joseph Desmaret were engaged in a fake scheme to rig the sale of a parcel of Spring Valley property.

In return for promised concealed ownership interest in the project, the mayor and deputy mayor are accused of selling their votes on the project and their influence over the other board members.

“In a piece of pure theater, they staged the presentations to the Village Board,” Venizelos said. “The mayor knew the three supposedly unrelated developers were all in collusion. She did not know that all three were FBI agents.”