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The Daily Need

New York’s top prosecutor treats corrupt politicians like drug kingpins

State Senator Carl Kruger of Brooklyn, enters FBI headquarters to surrender to federal authorities in New York Thursday. Photo: AP/ Louis Lanzano

Yet another New York politician has been indicted on corruption charges.

On Thursday, two members of the state legislature — Carl Kruger, a state senator, and William Boyland, a member of the Assembly — were charged with trading official actions for bribes. Also ensnared in the scandal were several longtime lobbyists and a Brooklyn real estate developer.

Kruger is just the latest New York politician to be implicated in Albany’s fetid ethical culture. As the U.S. attorney, Preet Bharara, said in announcing the charges: “Every single time we arrest a state senator or assemblyman, it should be a jarring wake-up call. Instead, it seems that no matter how many times the alarm goes off, Albany just hits the snooze button.”

Bharara, then, has taken on the de facto role of Albany’s ethics cop. As the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York — perhaps the most influential federal prosecutor in the country — Bharara has invested considerable resources in the office’s public corruption unit. Traditionally, the U.S. attorney’s office has focused more on terrorism and financial crimes.

But it’s not just the money he has invested. Bharara has presided over a fundamental shift in how the U.S. attorney’s public corruption unit does business. And it’s a model that could be emulated around the country.

In New York, as in many other states, state and county-level prosecutors are often hamstrung when it comes to corruption cases. Often the political favor-trading that we think of as “dishonest” is not actually illegal. The federal “honest services” law was designed to correct that, but the scope of the law was narrowed considerably by a Supreme Court ruling last year.

To fill the void, Bharara has taken the aggressive techniques used in drug investigations and repurposed them for public corruption cases. The chief of his public corruption unit is Dan Stein, a veteran in the U.S. attorney’s office who worked for years in the narcotics division. When he took the helm of the public corruption unit, Stein brought with him many of the tactics used in narcotics cases, such as wiretaps, electronic surveillance, undercover agents and the use of confidential informants.

Boyd Johnson — Bharara’s deputy and a former chief of the public corruption unit best known for prosecuting former Gov. Elliot Spitzer — told me in an interview last year that the U.S. attorney’s office had become much more attuned to what was happening in the political world. The public corruption unit, he said, was also much more active in seeking tips from informants, developing confidential sources and deploying tactics more commonly reserved for drug kingpins. “That is a shift. I think that’s a very intentional one,” Johnson said.

The 53-page criminal complaint against Kruger, Boyland and the others, for example, relies heavily on information gleaned from electronic surveillance and recorded conversations. Investigators tapped Kruger’s personal cell phone and taped his conversations with FBI agents posing as lobbyists and intermediaries. In fact, the case against Kruger is a clear example of what the Supreme Court had in mind when it limited uses of the “honest services” law to cases involving allegations of bribery and kickbacks. The Kruger case has both.

The aggressive tactics favored by Bharara’s office may prove useful to other investigators across the country, especially in states where ethics laws are as lax as they are in New York. As I wrote last year during former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s corruption trial, state prosecutors there feared that the collapse of the honest services law would severely hamper their efforts to crack down on political favor-trading. Patrick Collins, a former federal prosecutor, said it would be a “significant blow.”

In Illinois, however, applying Bharara’s methods could be more difficult. State prosecutors there are allowed to use wiretaps on drug dealers, but not corrupt public officials. The exemption, Collins said, is intentional: “One doesn’t have to be to cynical to identify why the politicians may have carved themselves out of the statute.”

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