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Local News April 11, 2013  RSS feed

RESTORING THE ‘PUBLIC TRUST’

Cuomo’s Bill Targets Political Crooks
by Robert Pozarycki

One week after an assemblyman, a state senator and a City Council member were pinched in separate federal public corruption cases, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced on Tuesday, Apr. 9, the creation of thePublic Trust Act,” which would expand prosecutorial powers statewide to root out those who abuse state and local governments for their own political or personal gain.

The legislation is designed to update existing state laws on public corruption which Cuomo’s office stated are “obsolete and far less effective than federal statutes for prosecuting individuals” who commit such crimes against the state and municipalities in New York.

Should it become law, the Public Trust Act would create a new class of felony crimes—bribing a public servant, corrupting the government and failing to report a bribe or a bribe attempt— punishable by lengthy prison sentences and costly fines.

Legal definitions of what constitutes public corruption would also be expanded, enabling state prosecutors to take action against elected officials, lobbyists and others accused of trying to manipulate the government for their personal advantage.

Additionally, anyone convicted of public corruption under the act would be prohibited from ever again serving in either state or local governments in New York. This includes “holding elected or civil office, lobbying, contracting, receiving state funds or doing” business with the state, directly or indirectly, according to the governor.

“The Public Trust Act recognizes that crimes of public corruption should be treated more seriously than other white-collar crimes, because when they break the law, they also break the public trust that the people have placed in government,” Cuomo said in a statement on Tuesday. “This legislation will continue our work to restore public trust by giving every district attorney in our state the tools they need to root out and punish all forms of public corruption at every level of government.”

Cuomo announced the legislation amid two political scandals which surfaced last week.

Federal agents arrested State Sen. Malcolm Smith, City Council Member Daniel Halloran and two Republican party officials in the Bronx and Queens last Tuesday, Apr. 2, for their alleged participation in a bribery conspiracy which aimed to have Smith— a Democrat—run on the Republican party line for mayor.

Halloran was additionally charged with allegedly accepting bribes from an undercover agent posing as a developer in exchange for pursuing City Council discretionary funds for a project.

Two days later, federal prosecutors charged Bronx Assemblyman Eric Stevenson for allegedly accepting bribes from the operators of a day care center in exchange for drafting a state bill that would have placed a moratorium on the licensing and opening of day care centers.

Stevenson’s colleague in the Assembly, Nelson Castro of the Bronx, was also linked to the scheme, but reportedly cooperated with the federal government in its investigation. Castro has since announced his resignation from office.

In recent years, a number of elected officials have been prosecuted by the federal and/or state governments for public corruption. They include:

• former City Council Member and State Sen. Hiram Monserrate, who is serving two years in a federal prison for using City Council discretionary funds allocated to a nonprofit group to support his previous campaigns for public office;

• former State Sen. Shirley Huntley, who faces up to five years in prison after admitting to federal charges that she embezzled thousands of dollars in state funds through a non-profit education group for her own personal use;

• the late Assemblyman Anthony Seminerio, who died in a federal prison in January 2011 while serving a sentence for using a consulting firm he created to accept kickbacks from clients doing official business with the state; and

• former State Sen. Carl Kruger, who is serving a seven-year prison sentence after being convicted on federal charges for accepting bribes from firms which conducted business with the state government.

Details of the act

As described by the governor, the three new crimes created in the Public Trust Act would give prosecutors across the state the ability to charge individuals only by providing “that the person paying the bribe ‘intended’ to influence the public official, or that the person receiving it intended to be so influenced.”

Current state law, Cuomo noted, requires that prosecutors may only bring such charges against individuals if they can prove “a corrupt agreement or understanding” existed between the person paying the bribe and the individual accepting it.

The act would also elevate the charges of dealing out or accepting bribes of $10,000 or more from a Class C to a Class B felony, thereby increasing the prison terms and/or fiscal penalties faced by those convicted of such an offense.

In creating the crime of “corrupting the government,” public officials and all others convicted of willfully defrauding the state government or a municipality would face felony charges with a maximum penalty of more than 15 years in prison.

Finally, the act would require all public officials to report any public corruption to the proper authorities. Anyone who knows of corruption and fails to report it could face a misdemeanor charge.

Other provisions of the legislation include the following:

• increasing penalties for offenses such as fraud, theft or money laundering involving state or local government property;

• elevating the crime of official misconduct from a misdemeanor to either a Class C, D or E felony, which carries maximum penalties of between four and 15 years in prison;

• prohibits any individual convicted of public corruption felonies from serving in civil or elected office or doing any official business with the state (including serving as a lobbyist, negotiating government contract and receiving tax credits);

• enables judges to require those convicted of public corruption felonies to pay up to three times the amount of profit or gain made from an illegal transaction;

• expands the statute of limitations for public corruption charges by which all public officials and those acting in concert with them to commit misconduct can be held liable for their actions up to five years after leaving office; and

• changing immunity rules for cooperating witnesses in a public corruption cases, which allows prosecutors to charge witnesses for their role in a public corruption crime should the prosecution obtain other evidence.

Both Kings County District Attorney Charles J. Hynes and Queens District Attorney Richard A. Brown praised the act in statements issued on Tuesday.

“Tougher jail sentences, lifetime bans from public service, making it a crime not to report a bribe are all measures that address the core issues of our current laws, which are not as effective as federal statutes,” Hynes said. “In addition, changing the immunity granted to someone testifying in public corruption cases ... will expand the opportunity and power to prosecute those who would use the grand jury subpoena as a shield to prosecution.”

“We welcome these important new tools that Governor Cuomo is proposing,” Brown added. “They will strengthen our laws and make it possible for prosecutors to more effectively investigate and prosecute public corruption.”