NEW YORK (AP) — A Democratic state lawmaker was arrested along with five other politicians Tuesday in an alleged plot to pay tens of thousands of dollars in bribes to GOP bosses to let him run for mayor of New York City as a Republican.
U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara called it an "unappetizing smorgasbord of graft and greed" that reveals a New York political culture defined by a single rule: "Show me the money."
Malcolm Smith, 56, who has served at times as the state Senate's majority and minority leader since becoming a senator in March 2000, was arrested along with Republican New York City Councilman Dan Halloran, 42, and four other political figures.
Smith, who was removed Tuesday from his leadership post in Albany, had not yet officially launched a campaign for mayor — the first New York City mayoral race in twelve years without Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Smith "tried to bribe his way to a shot at Gracie Mansion," Bharara said, referring to the official mayor's residence. "Smith drew up the game plan and Councilman Halloran essentially quarterbacked that drive by finding party chairmen who were wide open to receiving bribes."
A criminal complaint said that in meetings with a cooperating witness and an undercover FBI agent posing as a wealthy real estate developer, Smith agreed to bribe up to five leaders of Republican Party county committees in the five boroughs of New York City so he could run for mayor as a Republican, even though he was a registered Democrat.
Bharara said $80,000 in cash was promised or paid to Bronx County Republican Party Chairman Joseph Savino, 45, and Queens County Republican Party Vice Chairman Vincent Tabone, 46, who were both arrested Tuesday. The government said Halloran told the undercover agent that he wanted to get his "mortgage situation resolved" and to be named deputy police commissioner if Smith were elected mayor.
Smith said in a statement that he'll be vindicated. His lawyer, Gerald L. Shargel, said his client denies wrongdoing.
"Malcolm Smith is a dedicated public servant who has served both the state of New York and his constituents in an exemplary fashion," Shargel said. "He steadfastly denies the allegations that are contained in the complaint."
Outside federal court in White Plains, N.Y., Shargel said the allegations in the criminal complaint "do not tell the full story."
Halloran's attorney, Dennis Ring, said: "The councilman denies all allegations and looks forward to clearing his name and returning to court."
Representatives for Savino and Tabone did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
On Tuesday evening, Halloran was stripped of his committee assignments and money-allocating authority in the City Council. Earlier in the day, Smith was removed from his committee assignments and leadership post in the breakaway group of five senators that formed a majority coalition with Senate Republicans.
Running as a Republican in the New York City mayoral race is an attractive path for candidates because it is easier to get on the GOP primary ballot in a city crowded with Democratic politicians. The tactic was popularized by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who switched from the Democratic to Republican parties shortly before his first successful run for mayor in 2001. At least three current candidates for mayor switched their party affiliation to get on the GOP ballot.
In Smith's case, authorities say, he wanted to get on the Republican ballot but keep his Democratic party affiliation, a move that would require written consent of three of the city's five Republican Party county chairmen.
In court papers, the FBI detailed numerous meetings over the last year among the defendants, the undercover FBI agent and the cooperating witness, who pleaded guilty to federal charges last month in a deal aimed at winning leniency at sentencing.
In a Jan. 25 meeting in Smith's car in Rockland County, the cooperating witness told Smith that buying the help of Republican county committee leaders would cost "a pretty penny" and asked if it's "worth any price," the complaint said. The FBI said Smith responded: "Look, talk to me before you close it. But it's worth it. Because you know how big a deal it is."
Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, speaking Tuesday at an event in Buffalo, called the arrests "very, very troubling."
"We have zero tolerance for any violation of the public integrity and the public trust," Cuomo said.
New York Republican Chairman Ed Cox said the arrests were "deeply concerning."
"The integrity of the electoral process for the voters of New York City must be preserved," Cox said in a statement.
One candidate for mayor, billionaire businessman John Catsimatidis, said the arrests "point to a culture of corruption that permeates our city and state, corruption fueled by career politicians who put personal advancement before public service."
Tabone is a lawyer for Catsimatidis' Red Apple Group, which owns the Gristedes supermarket chain and other businesses, and Tabone also is a consultant to the billionaire's campaign. Campaign finance records show Tabone has been paid $3,000 so far.
Catsimatidis' campaign said on Tuesday that Tabone has been suspended from the business and his association with the campaign has been terminated.
If convicted of conspiracy, wire fraud and violation of the Hobbs Act, Smith could face up to 45 years in prison. If convicted, Halloran faced the same potential penalty on charges of conspiracy and two counts of wire fraud. Tabone and Savino were each charged with conspiracy and wire fraud, which carry up to 25 years in prison. Jasmin and Desmaret were charged with mail fraud, which carries a potential penalty of 20 years in prison.
Besides the mayoral plot, authorities said the investigation also revealed a scheme in which Halloran received $18,300 in cash bribes and $6,500 in straw donor campaign contribution checks to steer up to $80,000 in City Council money to a company he believed was controlled by those who paid him the bribes.
In a third plot, prosecutors say, Spring Valley Mayor Noramie Jasmin, 49, and Spring Valley Deputy Mayor Joseph Desmaret, 55, agreed to accept financial benefits so that Smith could use his power as a senator to help obtain state funds for road work in the Rockland County village outside New York City that would benefit a real estate project that Smith believed was being built by the undercover agent's company in Spring Valley. Jasmin and Desmaret were arrested Tuesday.
Representatives for Jasmin, and Desmaret did not immediately respond to comment requests.
The defendants were all released Tuesday on a $250,000 bond.
Barr reported from White Plains. Associated Press writers Jennifer Peltz and Tom Hays in New York and Michael Hill, Michael Virtanen and George M. Walsh in Albany contributed to this report.