NEW YORK — A Democratic state lawmaker was arrested along with five other politicians Tuesday in an alleged plot to pay tens of thousands of dollars in bribes to GOP bosses to let him run for mayor of New York City as a Republican.
U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara called it an "unappetizing smorgasbord of graft and greed" that reveals a New York political culture defined by a single rule: "Show me the money."
Malcolm Smith, 56, 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, 42, and four other political figures.
Smith "tried to bribe his way to a shot at Gracie Mansion," Bharara said, referring to 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."
A criminal complaint 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, even though he was a registered Democrat.
Bharara said $80,000 in cash was promised or paid to Bronx County Republican Party Chairman Joseph Savino, 45, and Queens County Republican Party Vice Chairman Vincent Tabone, 46, who were both arrested Tuesday. The government said Halloran 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.
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."
Halloran's attorney, Dennis Ring, said: "The councilman denies all allegations and looks forward to clearing his name and returning to court."
Representatives for Savino and Tabone did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Running as a Republican in the New York City mayoral race is an attractive path for candidates because it is easier to get on the GOP primary ballot in a city crowded with Democratic politicians. 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.
In Smith's case, authorities say, he wanted to get on the Republican ballot but keep his Democratic party affiliation, a move that would require written consent of three of the city's five Republican Party county chairmen.
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."
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