A New York state lawmaker was arrested Tuesday along with several other politicians in an alleged plot to bribe his way into the race for mayor of New York City.
Democratic state Sen. Malcolm Smith tried to pay off some of New York City's Republican party bosses to get himself on the ballot as a GOP candidate, federal authorities said.
"The complaint 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," U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said.
Republican New York City Councilman Dan Halloran and four other political figures also were charged.
Smith, 56, "tried to bribe his way to a shot at Gracie Mansion," Bharara said in a statement, 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."
In meetings with a cooperating witness and an undercover FBI agent posing as a wealthy real estate developer, Smith agreed to bribe leaders of Republican Party county committees around New York City in an attempt to run for mayor as a Republican, even though he was a registered Democrat, a criminal complaint said.
Also charged are: Bronx County Republican Party Chairman Joseph Savino, 45; Queens County Republican Party Vice Chairman Vincent Tabone, 46; Spring Valley Mayor Noramie Jasmin, 49; and Spring Valley Deputy Mayor Joseph Desmaret, 55. If convicted of conspiracy, wire fraud and violation of the Hobbs Act, Smith could face up to 45 years in prison. Charges of conspiracy and two counts of wire fraud against Halloran carry the same potential penalty. Tabone and Savino were each charged with conspiracy and wire fraud, which carry up to 25 years in prison upon conviction. Jasmin and Desmaret were charged with mail fraud, which carries a potential penalty of 20 years in prison.
In exchange for payments to Savino and Tabone, Smith agreed to use his power as a senator to help obtain state funds for a road project in Spring Valley, a village of 30,000 residents in Rockland County outside New York City. That, in turn, was to benefit a real estate project that Smith believed was being built by the undercover agent's company in Spring Valley, the complaint alleged.
Charges in the case include bribery, extortion, and wire and mail fraud, Bharara said.
Smith said in a statement that he'll be vindicated, and 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."
Representatives for the other politicians did not immediately respond to comment requests.
In court papers, the FBI detailed meetings aimed at benefiting Smith that began in November and recounted numerous meetings 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."
The court papers also portrayed Halloran as critical to the plans.
In one conversation, the FBI said, Halloran was soliciting funding for his congressional campaign in September when he agreed to hire someone of the cooperating witness's choosing for a congressional staff position in return for a cash contribution, saying: "That's politics, that's politics, it's all about how much. Not about whether or will, it's about how much, and that's our politicians in New York, they're all like that, all like that. And they get like that because of the drive that the money does for everything else. You can't do anything without the ... money."
Smith, first elected to the Senate in 2000, has served as minority and majority leader, as well as president pro tempore and acting lieutenant governor. He serves on the state Senate's transportation committee and is vice chairman of its finance committee.
As the government described it, he was central to the conspiracy.
An effort by Smith to run as a Republican is not unprecedented. Mayor Michael Bloomberg switched from the Democratic to Republican parties shortly before his first successful run for mayor in 2001. The path is attractive to candidates because it is easier to get on the ballot for the Republican mayoral primary in a city crowded with Democratic politicians.
Smith, however, could not run as a Republican without the written consent of three of the city's five Republican Party county chairmen, who were scheduled to meet on Wednesday.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo, speaking at an event in Buffalo Tuesday morning, 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 called the arrests "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."