Fresh from landmark convictions of two Albany legislative leaders U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said in an interview on Monday there is a “deep problem” of corruption in the state Capitol.
Bharara, appearing on WNYC radio, seemed dismayed at a lack of urgency for ethics reform after the convictions of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Republican Senate majority leader Dean Skelos and scattered criticism of his aggressive use of federal laws.
“During the course of all this, there has been, I hate to say it, a little bit more whispered whining on the part of some legislators in the press without attribution than focus on how to solve the problem and focus on healing themselves, and I think that’s unfortunate,” said Bharara, who oversees the Southern District of New York, centered in Manhattan.
He also contrasted the reaction with how he thought the nation might respond if equally prominent Washington leaders were convicted back-to-back.
“It would be a big outcry, and the Congress itself would realize it has to step up,” Bharara said on the public radio’s “Brian Lehrer Show.”
He offered no specific agenda, but said limiting outside income of legislators and cutting the pensions of those who are convicted were ideas worth exploring. He said the concentration of all power in Albany in the governor and two legislative leaders was a core problem.
“Any institution can have bad apples . . . but the first line of defense is the institution itself,” he said. “It seems they’re doing a pretty bad job.”
He also noted a snippet of testimony from one of the good-government progressive Democrats who testified at each trial about retaliation that occurred when the authority of leaders like Skelos and Silver was challenged.
Bharara, citing lessons of history going back to the ancient Greeks, said, “There’s never been a time when the inability to challenge the leadership . . . has ever been good for government.”
Skelos, 67, and his son Adam, 33, both of Rockville Centre, were convicted Friday of extortion and bribery in schemes to get jobs for Adam. Silver, 71, of Manhattan, was convicted two weeks ago of doing legislative favors to profit from law-firm referral fees.
Bharara said during the interview that a key impetus for the prosecutions was the decision of Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the two leaders to kill a Moreland Commission that had been investigating legislative ethics.
But he declined to comment on speculation that Cuomo may be his next target. “I don’t answer hypotheticals,” he told Lehrer. He has not held a news conference since the convictions, but spoke to The New York Times and Lehrer.
He also declined to comment on whether Cuomo should convene a special session of the legislature to enact ethics reforms -- “That’s not for me to say” -- but he did say New York’s system of having part-time legislators who can earn outside income deserved scrutiny.
“There is something to be said that it’s a little harder to get away with bribery if there are limits on outside income,” he said. Silver’s case involved outside income, but Skelos’ had nothing to do with it.
He was also asked about pensions -- Skelos and Silver are both in line for pensions in excess of $90,000 despite their convictions, the result of a state law that Bharara said “doesn’t seem at all fair.”
He said his office will seek to use the pensions as substitute assets to satisfy any forfeiture judgments they get as a result of their illegal schemes. In Silver’s case, prosecutors alleged he collected $4 million in “quid pro quo” referral fees, and Skelos’ son got about $300,000.
“We will be doing all we can to make sure justice is done,” Bharara said.