By Michael Gormley
It's a glaring aspect of the most talked about issue in Albany's burgeoning public corruption investigation that few are willing to raise publicly: Is the federal corruption sting rocking New York politics singling out black and Latino politicians? Experts and many lawmakers acknowledge it may appear that way but it's not the case.
So far, in a Legislature where minorities have long been underrepresented, the five figures who have been charged and eight who have been caught on FBI surveillance wires in the last five weeks are all black or Latino.
"Black and Hispanic politicians are the ones being wired and sent out to root out corruption among black and Hispanic officials," said Sen. Ruben Diaz Jr., a Bronx Democrat. "I would hate to think that as black and Hispanic leaders .... we would be targeted to weed out corruption only in our backyards and that we would be held to a higher standard than the non-black and Hispanic leaders."
But in years past, the federal investigation largely ensnared whites. Senate Democratic leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the first black woman to run a New York state legislative conference, argues that corruption is cyclical, not racial.
"People are going to think what they think, but it's important to understand that what is going on in Albany transcends race, gender or party," Stewart-Cousins said. "While this current wave has involved mostly people of color, prior to this it captured people across the aisle who were not people of color."
In this latest corruption investigation, Sens. Malcolm Smith, John Sampson and Shirley Huntley and Assemblymen Nelson Castro and Eric Stevenson are charged. All are black or Latino Democrats and come from Brooklyn or the Bronx.
Go back a few years, though, and find this roster of federal corruption cases from 2009 to 2011: Sens. Nicholas Spano, Carl Kruger and Vincent Leibell and Assemblyman Anthony Seminiero, all white and half of whom were Republicans from outside New York City.
That period also included one of the biggest corruption cases in Albany history, which sent former Democratic Sen. Pedro Espada Jr., a Bronx Latino, to prison. Former Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, a white upstate Republican, was convicted, but that decision was vacated and he still faces a new trial. And just before that, state Comptroller Alan Hevesi, a white New York City Democrat, was forced from office in 2007 and imprisoned in one of the highest-level corruption cases in New York history.
The clearest delineation, which may not be obvious to the general public, is which U.S. attorney's office is handling the cases. The big cases from 2009 to 2011 were handled by federal prosecutors upstate and in the suburbs, where most politicians are white.
The current corruption cases are handled by U.S. attorney's offices in New York City, where minority politicians prevail. The U.S. attorney for the southern New York district who came out with the first charges in these arrests of racial minorities is Preet Bharara. He was born in India and was appointed by President Barack Obama.
Logically and demographically, the racial breakdown in federal corruption investigations has roughly mirrored the racial makeup of their jurisdiction. Federal investigators have declined to comment on the cases.
But the concern for many is that recurring TV news video, known as B-roll, and newspaper photos will likely show images of the recently embattled black and Latino lawmakers leaving courthouses or at the Capitol, and video and photos of white defendants in the previous investigations won't be used.
"If we picked a different year, the B-roll would be Bruno, Spano, Seminiero and Leibell," said Sen. Liz Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat, who is white. "I don't believe they are only going after African-American and Latino legislators. But I worry that will be spun wrong, especially upstate."
Political science professor Doug Muzzio of Baruch College in New York City said it's important to discuss race in a story that will likely dominate the news for months.
"There is a deafening silence on the demographics of those who have been charged," Muzzio said.
"This would be likely and incorrectly perceived to be a black and Hispanic problem," he said. "That can only feed into the general cynicism of the public."
And, Stewart-Cousins said, would badly miss the point.
"Clearly this is affecting everyone," she said. "We have to take this opportunity of outrage and use it to pass some real reforms to change the culture of Albany."