NEW YORK (AP) — 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."
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