State Sen. Malcolm Smith woke up to FBI agents pounding on his door in Queens on Tuesday morning—and his colleagues in the Independent Democratic Conference woke up to a pounding headache.
Federal prosecutors charged Smith with bribing New York City political officials in a quixotic bid to run for mayor on the Republican ballot, the latest in a steady stream of corruption cases flowing out of Albany. The elaborate alleged conspiracy and extortion plot also ensnared Queens Councilman Dan Halloran, two Republican county leaders and two officials in Spring Valley, including the village’s mayor.
But Smith was the most high-profile politician charged, and his alleged role embarrassed the IDC, who maintain an uneasy power-sharing coalition with Senate Republicans, and gave ammunition to Democrats eager to retake control of the Senate’s upper chamber.
“As this independent group of legislators, who are supposedly in favor of fairness and transparency and a standard of ethics that’s better than both parties, they’re supposedly above the fray, and yet one of their own members of this exclusive club is now at the center of this FBI indictment,” said one Republican political insider with deep knowledge of state politics. “This is as scandalous as you get.”
Senators Jeff Klein, David Valesky, Diane Savino and David Carlucci broke from the Democrats and formed their own conference after Republicans gained control of the Senate following the November 2010 election.
The lawmakers touted their conference as a bulwark against corruption that had rooted itself among their Democratic colleagues—who have lost Pedro Espada, Hiram Monserrate, Carl Kruger, Efrain Gonzalez and Shirley Huntley to convictions ranging from theft, mail fraud and bribery to conspiracy and falsifying evidence.
Senate Democrats threatened to wrestle back the majority after securing additional seats in the 2012 elections, but the Independent Democrats added a fifth member, Malcolm Smith, and announced they would form a governing coalition with Senate Republicans and another Democratic senator, Simcha Felder.
Smith received a committee chairmanship, which came with a $12,500 raise, and Klein made him chairman of the conference in February. At the time a Klein spokesman described Smith to City & State as a “great senator.”
Six weeks later, Smith was in handcuffs, and Klein had stripped him of his titles.
“These are very serious allegations that, if true, constitute a clear betrayal of the public trust,” Klein said in a statement. “Given the level of criminality alleged, I believe that Sen. Smith should seriously consider whether or not he can continue to effectively serve his constituents.”
State Sen. Tony Avella said he was not surprised by the allegations. He thinks both Smith and Halloran are “finished politically,” and said the Senate should move to expel Smith.
“It’s just indicative of the pervasive corruption in city and state politics,” Avella said. “It’s the influence of money. It’s the power of political parties to nominate people for public office. We keep electing the wrong people to public office, whether they’re interested in ego, public office, or money. Too many people in politics and government are in it for the wrong reasons.”
Democratic Conference Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins called Smith’s actions “an unacceptable and outrageous violation of the public trust.” And one state senator, Daniel Squadron, quickly called on Smith to resign.
“The charges outlined in today’s complaint are simply shocking,” state Squadron said in a statement. “This is something that belongs in House of Cards, not an election to decide who will run our city or any part of our government.”
Smith has maintained his innocence, and his attorney, Gerald Shargel, told reporters the senator was not thinking about resigning, but multiple Albany sources said his political career is almost certainly over.
Smith faces a pending federal indictment with charges that could carry up to 45 years in prison. The Senate Ethics Committee has also begun preliminary discussions over whether Smith’s conduct broke ethics rules, and will convene in the coming days, according to committee chairman state Sen. Phil Boyle. The Joint Commission on Public Ethics may consider investigating the allegations as well.
The future of the IDC is also unclear.
The group’s governing coalition still has the numbers necessary to maintain control of the Senate, even if Smith steps down and Democrats win his seat in a special election, but the scandal has shattered the conference’s image as a group untainted by corruption and greed.
“This is really bad,” said a Democratic political insider. “Jeff was out there trying to tout this as a new paradigm, and here you have in a very crass way the same old corruption, the same old deal-making and everything else, but just—great, now it’s happening in a bipartisan fashion. That’s progress.”
Some members may face primaries, including David Carlucci, who, in the 28-page complaint against Smith and his alleged co-conspirators, Smith referenced as a legislator that an undercover agent and a cooperating witness could approach to provide transit funding for a real estate project. Both Carlucci and the U.S. Attorney’s Office confirmed he was not involved in any criminal misconduct.
“Carlucci should be concerned about Democrats running someone against him,” one Democratic consultant said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if the Working Families Party runs somebody against him.”
Across the state in 2014, Democrats will likely aim to remind voters about a corruption scandal that didn’t involve one of their own.
“Democrats are going to have a message to the state: Trust us with the government,” said former legislator Richard Brodsky. “This is much less about IDC than it is about how the Democrats put together a governing majority to control the Senate.”
Meanwhile, Smith’s presence in the Senate will serve as a distraction to the Independent Democrats’ agenda.
“I’m sure he’ll be up in Albany,” Assemblyman Walter Mosley said. “He will be working. It’s going to be very odd and peculiar.”
Tags: Andrea Stewart-Cousins, Carl Kruger, Dan Halloran, Daniel Squadron, David Carlucci, David Valesky, Diane Savino, Efrain Gonzalez, Hiram Monserrate, House of Cards, IDC, JCOPE, Jeff Klein, Joint Commission on Public Ethics, Malcolm Smith, Pedro Espada, Phil Boyle, Richard Brodsky, Senate Ethics Committee, shirley huntley, Tony Avella, U.S. Attorney's Office, walter mosley, Working Families Party