By Larry Neumeister and Meghan Barr
For the politically ambitious, running as a Republican is sometimes the best way a Democrat can increase his electoral odds in New York City's crowded mayoral race. Now, a federal prosecutor says one Democratic state lawmaker went too far by offering GOP bosses bribes in order to get on their ballot.
U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said Tuesday that Malcolm Smith, who has served at times as the state Senate's majority and minority leader since becoming a senator in March 2000, was arrested along with Republican New York City Councilman Dan Halloran and four other political figures.
Bharara said Smith "tried to bribe his way to a shot at Gracie Mansion," 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," he said.
Campaigning as a Republican in the mayoral race is an attractive path for candidates because it is easier to get on the GOP primary ballot. The tactic was popularized by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who switched from the Democratic to Republican parties shortly before his first successful run for mayor in 2001. At least three current candidates for mayor switched their party affiliation to get on the GOP ballot.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo, speaking Tuesday at an event in Buffalo, called the arrests "very, very troubling."
"We have zero tolerance for any violation of the public integrity and the public trust," said Cuomo, a Democrat.
New York Republican Chairman Ed Cox said the arrests were "deeply concerning."
"The integrity of the electoral process for the voters of New York City must be preserved," Cox said in a statement.
One of the men arrested, Vincent Tabone, worked as a lawyer and campaign consultant for mayoral candidate John Catsimatidis, and the billionaire businessman responded that the scandal points to "a culture of corruption" in the city and state.
Catsimatidis' campaign said Tabone has been suspended from the business and his association with the campaign has been terminated.
Bharara called the alleged plot an "unappetizing smorgasbord of graft and greed." He said it highlights a New York political culture defined by "Show me the money."
A criminal complaint against Smith, 56, said that in meetings with a cooperating witness and an undercover FBI agent posing as a wealthy real estate developer, Smith agreed to bribe up to five leaders of Republican Party county committees in the five boroughs of New York City so he could run for mayor as a Republican.
Bharara said $80,000 in cash was promised or paid to Bronx County Republican Party Chairman Joseph Savino, 45, and to Tabone, 46, vice chairman of the Queens County Republican Party. They were both arrested Tuesday.
Tabone is a lawyer for Catsimatidis' Red Apple Group, which owns the Gristedes supermarket chain and other businesses, and Tabone has been a consultant to Catsimatidis' campaign. Campaign finance records show Tabone had been paid $3,000 so far.
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."
Smith was removed Tuesday from his leadership post in Albany. He had not yet officially launched a campaign for mayor — the first New York City mayoral race in 12 years without Bloomberg.
Smith said in a statement that he'll be vindicated. 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."
Outside federal court in White Plains, N.Y., Shargel said the allegations in the criminal complaint "do not tell the full story."
The government said Halloran, 42, told the undercover agent that he wanted to get his "mortgage situation resolved" and to be named deputy police commissioner if Smith were elected mayor.
Halloran's attorney, Dennis Ring, said: "The councilman denies all allegations and looks forward to clearing his name and returning to court."
On Tuesday evening, Halloran was stripped of his committee assignments and money-allocating authority in the City Council. The Queens Republican Party said in a statement the chairman has asked Tabone to resign from his position, pending the outcome of legal proceedings.
Representatives for Savino and Tabone did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
In court papers, the FBI detailed numerous meetings over the last year 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."
If convicted of conspiracy, wire fraud and violation of the Hobbs Act, Smith could face up to 45 years in prison. If convicted, Halloran could face the same potential penalty on charges of conspiracy and two counts of wire fraud. Tabone and Savino were each charged with conspiracy and wire fraud, which carry up to 25 years in prison.
Besides the mayoral plot, authorities said the investigation also revealed a scheme in which Halloran received $18,300 in cash bribes and $6,500 in straw donor campaign contribution checks to steer up to $80,000 in City Council money to a company he believed was controlled by those who paid him the bribes.
In a third plot, prosecutors say, Spring Valley Mayor Noramie Jasmin, 49, and Spring Valley Deputy Mayor Joseph Desmaret, 55, agreed to accept financial benefits so that Smith could use his power as a senator to help obtain state funds for road work in the Rockland County village outside New York City that would benefit a real estate project that Smith believed was being built by the undercover agent's company in Spring Valley.
Jasmin and Desmaret also were arrested Tuesday. Jasmin and Desmaret were charged with mail fraud, which carries a potential penalty of 20 years in prison.
Representatives for Jasmin, and Desmaret did not immediately respond to comment requests.
The defendants were all released Tuesday on a $250,000 bond.
Several civics groups have called for campaign finance reform following the arrests. Representatives for Fair Elections for New York, Common Cause and the Brennan Center for Justice are holding a press conference Wednesday to urge "comprehensive campaign finance reform."
Barr reported from White Plains. Associated Press writers Jennifer Peltz and Tom Hays in New York and Michael Hill, Michael Virtanen and George M. Walsh in Albany contributed to this report.