Top lawmaker charged in plot for NYC mayoral ballot spot

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NEW YORK -- A top New York state lawmaker was arrested early Tuesday for what federal prosecutors said was his central role in a brazen series of bribery and corruption schemes, including an attempt to buy a spot on the ballot in this year's race for New York City mayor.

In outlining the charges against the Democratic lawmaker, state Sen. Malcolm Smith, as well as five other politicians and Republican Party leaders, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said the case was but the latest evidence that corruption in New York was "pervasive."

"Every New Yorker should be disheartened and dismayed by the sad state of affairs in this great state," Mr. Bharara said.

Mr. Smith, who represents the New York City borough of Queens and rose to become the state Senate's first black president, was accused of conspiring with city Councilman Daniel Halloran III, a Queens Republican, to get his name on the ballot for mayor as a Republican, which would require approval of a majority of the party's leadership in the city.

The others arrested were Joseph Savino, the Bronx Republican Party chairman; Vincent Tabone, vice chairman of the Queens Republican Party; and Noramie Jasmin, mayor of the Rockland County village of Spring Valley, and her deputy, Joseph Desmaret, according to a criminal complaint.

The complaint details a scheme hatched in a series of clandestine meetings in hotels, with cash passing hands in parked cars and hushed conversations in a restaurant on Valentine's Day, and even in Mr. Smith's office in Albany, the capital.

The meetings, recorded by an undercover agent or a cooperating witness, were primarily among Mr. Smith, the undercover agent and the witness, and Mr. Halloran and the agent and the witness. The scheme involving the mayoral race was one of three bribery schemes charged in the case.

Mr. Bharara, at a news conference, pointed to Mr. Halloran's own words in a recorded conversation with the confidential witness as evidence of how "money greases the wheel."

The charges immediately reverberated at City Hall and in Albany, threatening to upset New York's Republican mayoral primary and the leadership coalition that governs the state Senate.

"It is very, very troubling," Gov. Andrew Cuomo said. "We have zero tolerance for any violation of the public integrity and the public trust, so they're very serious."

At the Capitol, Mr. Smith is a key member of an independent faction of Democrats who joined forces with Republicans to seize Senate control this year. Although that coalition has enough members to retain control without him, the charges are sure to taint the coalition as well as the rest of the Senate Democrats, who have been struggling to distance themselves from years of corruption.

Jeffrey Klein, a Democrat and one of the two state Senate leaders, said Mr. Smith would be stripped of his committee assignments and conference leadership position. "These are very serious allegations that, if true, constitute a clear betrayal of the public trust," Mr. Klein said.

And in New York City, the case suggests an unseemly connection between money and the Republican Party's nominating process, and raises questions for a leading GOP candidate, John Catsimatidis. Mr. Tabone is an influential campaign adviser to Mr. Catsimatidis and in-house counsel to the candidate's privately held company, which owns the Gristedes supermarket chain.

In an interview Tuesday, Mr. Catsimatidis said he had suspended Mr. Tabone pending the charges' outcome. He dismissed the idea that the indictment would affect his mayoral bid.

Asked if Mr. Tabone's discussions with a rival Republican candidate could be viewed as a form of betrayal, Mr. Catsimatidis replied, "I think it can be considered a little bit of treason."

The charges are also likely to be a distraction for Joseph Lhota, another leading GOP candidate, who just days ago celebrated his endorsement by Mr. Halloran. A Lhota spokeswoman declined to comment.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who said he was familiar with only the broad outlines of the charges, said they illustrated the need to hold nonpartisan elections in the city, a cause he has championed for years, but that has failed to gain wide support.

Mr. Smith, 56, was taken from his home in the St. Albans section of Queens in handcuffs by FBI agents before sunrise, and Mr. Halloran, a lawyer from the Whitestone section of Queens, was arrested about the same time, law enforcement authorities said.

Mr. Smith, a contractor and real estate developer, has said he was considering running for mayor as a Republican, and the charges contend he made payments to Mr. Halloran in exchange for the councilman's help in setting up meetings with GOP leaders as part of an effort to get on the ballot.

Mr. Smith, the complaint says, agreed with the cooperating witness and the undercover FBI agent, who was masquerading as a wealthy real estate developer, to pay off leaders of Republican county committees in New York's five boroughs.



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