PROBE GOES ON: Undercover lawmakers expose Albany hush-hush corruption
ALBANY — New York lawmakers are eyeing each carefully, watching every word they say and making only half-joking suggestions that they should start every meeting with a mutual pat-down.
It’s a paranoia born of what some here see as the ultimate betrayal: Two lawmakers have gone undercover wearing recording devices as part of a growing federal corruption probe that has resulted in indictments against four lawmakers in the past month. At least a half-dozen more are known to be caught on tape.
Edgy politicians wonder who else could be wearing a wire.
“It’s created a chilling effect on the ability to have meetings,” said Sen. Kevin Parker of New York City’s Brooklyn borough. “Colleagues are being very cautious about what they are saying. There’s a lot of tension.”
“You almost don’t know who’s next.”
Albany denizens who for decades grew comfortable talking in clubby, insular backrooms now suddenly find the tables turned because of an investigation that is piercing their inner circles.
U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who railed last month against the “casualness and cockiness” of the corruption in Albany, seemed to enjoy making lawmakers ill at ease.
“If you are a corrupt official in New York,” he warned, “you have to worry that one of your colleagues is working with us.”
Some lawmakers are considering whether staying in office is worth the risk.
“There are any number of people thinking, ‘Is this worth it? And for how long?'” said Sen. Liz Krueger, a Democrat from Manhattan. “I have heard people joke about taking their legislative experience off their resumes.”
For six months, the FBI essentially moved into the red, Cape Cod-style home of Democratic Sen. Shirley Huntleyof New York City after she told them she knew about corruption in Albany and described seeing bags of cash in the state Senate building elevators, her lawyer said.
At the time, Huntley had a broken foot and found it hard to get around, a good reason for chats at her house with longtime friends and political allies.
What they didn’t know was that she was in criminal trouble herself and was cooperating with the government to try to get a lenient sentence, so the visits were taped and FBI cameras with long lenses clicked away from outside.
Federal agents had also enlisted Bronx Democrat Nelson Castro before he even reached office, turning a candidate facing a perjury charge into a fully wired state assemblyman for two terms over four years.
Castro’s movements were more mobile than Huntley’s, and his lawyer has said when he was recording conversations they were focused on “specific missions.”
Four lawmakers have been charged, all accused in the past month in schemes that include embezzlement and bribery. On Wednesday, a federal judge released Huntley’s recorded conversations with nine Democrats, including state senators, a city council member and two political operatives. Eight are under investigation, but only two have been charged.
Using lawmakers to record their colleagues is a rare but not unheard-of tactic.
In 2010, the U.S. Justice Department used three Republican legislators in Alabama to record meetings and phone calls with gambling interests and other legislators. Federal prosecutors got guilty pleas from four people, including a former state representative.
And in the early 1990s in Rhode Island, a state legislator wore a wire to record fellow Democrat and former Pawtucket Mayor Brian Sarault asking for a bribe from the lawmaker’s landscape architecture company. Sarault was eventually convicted.
Huntley was sentenced Thursday to a year and a day in prison after she embezzled nearly $88,000 from a state-funded nonprofit she controlled. In the end, she didn’t have a formal cooperation agreement with the government because they could not corroborate all of her allegations. But some of her recordings proved useful — and were made at great peril to herself, her attorney said. She and her family are now getting anonymous threats.
One of the people she recorded, Sen. John Sampson, a Senate Democratic leader from Brooklyn, pleaded not guilty this week to embezzlement charges. He was accused of saying to an unidentified associate that he would “take out” potential witnesses.
Eventually, he knew the net was drawing close.
“I can’t talk on the phone,” Sampson told an unidentified associate in November 2011, as federal authorities drew up charges against him of embezzling from foreclosures to fund his ill-fated district attorney race. “From now own, our conversation is, ‘I don’t have no contacts, you don’t know nothing.’ When we talk, that’s how we talk.”
In July, FBI agents confronted Sampson outside his Brooklyn home with that recording and other evidence plied from squeezing others facing charges or caught on tape.
Now, politicians back in Albany are jumpy and searching their memories to recall conversations with Huntley last summer, or over a drink with Castro, a Bronx Democrat, over four long years.
The frustration sometimes boils over into anger at what they say is betrayal. And they worry that a sarcastic remark, a flippant wisecrack about corruption, or a thoughtless mistake caught by an FBI mic could mark them for life.
“Everyone in the Legislature does not walk around wearing a wire as to not take innocent conversations out of context, and to unfairly reduce a legislator’s life down to a five-second sound bite,” said Sen. James Sanders Jr. of Queens.
“Deliberately leading people into a crime that they would not have committed, be they legislators or private individuals, is wrong and shows no honor.”
Long reported from New York City. Associated Press researcher Monika Mathur in New York City contributed to this report.
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