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Cuomo proposes empowering DAs to help fight political corruption

Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state’s district attorneys are pushing for laws to make it easier to prosecute bribery and public corruption cases, in the wake of recent scandals in Albany.

The bills would make it easier for the state’s DAs to prosecute cases of bribery, and politicians and others involved in bribery schemes. It would also create a new crime of failure to report bribery. Anyone who does not blow the whistle if they discover potential corruption could be charged with a misdemeanor.

Once the district attorneys indict and prosecute for public corruption, they’d be able to impose stiffer penalties. Those convicted of public corruption offenses would be permanently barred from holding any elected or civil office, as well as lobbying, contracting, or receiving any funding from the state.

Cuomo says the proposed legislation closes many loopholes in the state’s relatively lax corruption laws, which have hindered past prosecutions.

“What this will do is empower the 62 district attorneys all over the state,” said Cuomo. “We’re going to have many more eyes on the process, many more prosecutors involved, many more investigators involved.”

The proposal comes after two major corruption cases were announced by the U.S. Attorney for New York’s Southern District, Preet Bharara. In one, former Senate Leader Malcolm Smith is charged in a scheme that includes bribing his way on to the Republican New York City mayoral ticket, and attempting to steer a state funded road project to benefit a developer. In the other, Assemblyman Eric Stevenson is accused of taking thousands of dollars in exchange for pushing a bill tailor-made to help owners of an adult day care center.  A second assemblyman, Nelson Castro, admitted to being an informant since he took office in 2009.  

In both instances, the U.S. Attorney is attempting to prosecute under the federal theft of honest services law. There is no equivalent measure in New York state law.  

Manhattan D.A. and the head of the state’s District Attorneys Association, Cyrus Vance, says the new tools could make a difference in curbing public corruption.

“The public expects elected officials to conduct their dealings ethically and honestly,” said Vance. “It’s  time that our laws  caught up with reality.”

Cuomo, who was already planning on pushing for campaign finance reform in the second half of the legislative session, says he now plans a larger “more robust” package that could also look at strengthening the New York State Board of Elections investigatory powers, and perhaps ending party cross endorsements in elections.

But the governor admits no amount of new laws can “legislate away criminality” in the highly charged political arena. He says there’s a “bad combination of chemicals” that includes power, money, ambition and greed.

“You put all those chemicals in one test tube and you shake it up,” said Cuomo. “And bad things happen.”

Cuomo says he expects state lawmakers to be receptive. Already, Senate Republican Leader Dean Skelos and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver issued statements saying that they intend to work closely with the governor on anti-corruption measures.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.