Corruption Thrives In Albany: Why Don’t Prosecutions?

Corruption Thrives In Albany: Why Don’t Prosecutions?

Corruption Thrives In Albany: Why Don’t Prosecutions?
January 28, 2014

If prosecuting corruption cases were fishing, Albany would be considered a trout farm. It seems that every time a prosecutor puts a line in the pond, out comes another lawmaker.

Yet despite the number of cases, the general sentiment is that there are more investigations to be done and more arrests to be made. As the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara, commented, “It becomes more and more difficult to avoid the sad conclusion that political corruption in New York is indeed rampant and that the ‘show me the money’ culture in Albany is alive and well.”

Two things are striking about the litany of cases: the sheer volume and who is prosecuting them. The majority of cases have originated from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York in Manhattan and in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York in Brooklyn. There also has been a smattering of cases brought by the Attorney General’s Office and by the Manhattan and Bronx district attorneys. But few, if any, meaningful cases have been pursued by Albany’s own prosecutors.

When lawyers discuss the lack of Albany-originated corruption cases, the explanation offered is that it is very difficult to pursue these cases in the state criminal justice system. Experts are also quick to note that most district attorneys have relatively small budgets and staffs, and tend to put violence, drugs and street crime—not political corruption—at the top of their list of prosecutorial priorities.

Of course, none of this explains a more baffling situation. When it comes to political corruption cases, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of New York—the federal prosecutor responsible for Albany—is simply not a player. Admittedly, the Northern District has significantly fewer attorneys than the Southern and Eastern Districts, and a smaller budget. But this alone cannot explain the dearth of public corruption prosecutions. The U.S. Attorney for the Northern District, just like his colleagues in the Southern and Eastern Districts, has all the benefits of the federal law, a prosecutor-friendly grand jury system and a powerful partner in the FBI. Indeed, the sole case of note that the Northern District has pursued is against former Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, and the Bruno case is a curious aberration.

In truth, the problem is that the top spot in the Northern District has typically been filled by a homegrown, hometown lawyer. Currently Richard Hartunian serves in that position. By all indications he is a competent public servant who has done a credible job in a district that covers 32 counties. He just has not prosecuted corruption cases. And that’s really no surprise, given his background.

Before his appointment Hartunian was an assistant district attorney in Albany, where he prosecuted narcotics and violent crime cases. He then became a federal prosecutor in Albany and continued to focus on narcotics prosecutions, which is what he was doing when he was elevated to the top spot in the office. Is it any wonder that Hartunian has not made public corruption a priority?

By the way, it’s not just Hartunian. You would be hard-pressed to find any prosecutor, federal or local, in the Northern District with serious corruption experience.

What is harder to understand is why no one has bothered to do something about this dilemma. The U.S. Attorney is a presidential appointee who is typically chosen based on the recommendation of the local U.S. senator. Sen. Chuck Schumer certainly knows how to select a smart, aggressive prosecutor. He picked Bharara to serve in the Southern District.

And, as a Northern District native who started her career as a no-nonsense litigator, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand certainly should know where to find the right talent for the job. There are other examples that provide a template, if not a challenge, for the selection of a U.S. Attorney for Albany.

In 2001, at a time when Illinois was plagued with one of its perennial political corruption scandals, Sen. Peter Fitzgerald broke with the tradition of nominating a prominent Chicago lawyer as U.S. Attorney. Instead Sen. Fitzgerald went looking for an independent, tough-as-nails prosecutor. He recruited Patrick Fitzgerald (no relation), who was then serving in the Southern District of New York. (We were co-workers at the time.) Over the next decade Patrick Fitzgerald prosecuted an extraordinary assortment of corruption and other cases. No one can argue that his selection did not make a significant difference.

While there is no doubt that fixing the Albany culture of corruption requires more than criminal prosecutions, homegrown cases are not a bad place to start. Put another way, what does it say about Albany that every major prosecution, guilty plea or trial is an out-of-town event?

There are times when complex problems do lend themselves, at least in part, to simple solutions. If it takes a talent search to make Albany-based misdeeds subject to Albany-based justice, then let the search begin.

Steven M. Cohen served as secretary to Gov. Andrew Cuomo. In addition, from 1991 to 1998 he served along with Patrick Fitzgerald as an Assistant U.S. Attorney in the Southern District of New York. He is currently a partner with the law firm Zuckerman Spaeder and the executive vice president and chief administrative officer of MacAndrews & Forbes. 

Steven M. Cohen