Ex-New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who was convicted this week on corruption charges, is the latest domino to fall as New York’s culture of political corruption unravels. The next is likely to be Dean Skelos, the former Senate Majority Leader, who is on trial now.
NLPC was not the source of the evidence on which the charges against Republican Skelos and Democrat Silver were based, but the investigations would not have taken place if not for NLPC’s exposés of a slew of other corrupt officials.
Last year, Governor Andrew Cuomo disbanded the so-called “Moreland Commission,” an anti-corruption panel he named in 2013 to root out graft in response to all the headlines generated by NLPC. Cuomo shut down the Commission because it was apparently getting too close to his friends.
Preet Bharara, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, opened a criminal investigation of Cuomo and subpoenaed all of the Commission’s files, including information on Silver and Skelos.
Since 2010, NLPC has helped expose one corrupt New York politician after another. Here’s the scorecard:
• New York State Senator John Sampson was convicted on July 24 of obstruction of justice. A former Senate Majority Leader, he was charged with embezzlement, obstruction of justice and making false statements to the FBI. He allegedly embezzled $440,000 from escrow accounts on foreclosed properties. The Sampson investigation reportedly was prompted by media coverage of NLPC’s scrutiny of U.S. Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-NY) and his political network.
• On July 1, former New York State Senator Malcolm Smith was sentenced to seven years in prison after his conviction for bribery, extortion, and wire fraud. His conviction resulted from a scheme to bribe Republican officials to allow Smith to run for New York City mayor as a Republican. The Smith investigation was reportedly prompted by media coverage of NLPC’s scrutiny of New Direction Local Development Corporation (described below), of which Smith and Meeks were founders.
• On February 2, 2015, Albert Baldeo, a Meeks associate, and Democratic Party leader in New York City, was sentenced to 18 months in a federal penitentiary following his conviction for obstructing justice. He reported phantom donors to his unsuccessful 2010 City Council campaign in order to qualify for taxpayer matching funds. The scheme was described in a New York Post story of October 2011, based on information provided by NLPC.
• On September 10, 2014, Melvin E. Lowe, a New York political consultant, was found guilty of conspiring with State Senator John Sampson of Brooklyn to defraud the New York Senate Democratic Campaign Committee out of $100,000. Sampson and Lowe were caught up in an investigation prompted by NLPC's scrutiny of Meeks.
• New York City Councilman Ruben Wills was arrested on May 7, 2014. He is accused of looting a nonprofit group he controlled that was the recipient of taxpayer funds. At the time, Mills was Chief of Staff to State Senator Shirley Huntley (D-Queens) who was convicted and imprisoned for a similar scheme that was exposed by NLPC.
• On December 5, 2013, Dr. Dorothy Ogundu was arrested on the basis of information provided to the New York Post by NLPC. A Nigerian-born physician, Ogundu ran a fake health clinic in Queens, New York. She was accused of stealing $370,000 from twelve separate government grants. She was a prominent donor to Meeks, who secured $380,500 in earmarked funds for the fake clinic.
• In January 2013, former State Senator Shirley Huntley was convicted of fraud. In March 2011, a New York Post article, based on info provided by NLPC, exposed a sham charity she founded called The Parents Workshop, to which she steered taxpayer money. An aide and her niece helped her siphon off $87,000. Huntley was arrested in August 2012 and spent a year in prison.
• On July 28, 2012, the New York Times published a front-page story based on information provided by NLPC. The article spotlighted a “mysterious donor” named Bob Williams who made $900,000 in political contributions despite having no visible means of support. Williams vanished after the article.
It Started With Rangel…
In December 2010, the House of Representatives censured Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY), the first act of censure in 27 years. Rangel was found guilty on several counts, including two based on NLPC’s work.
Previously, Rangel resigned from his Chairmanship of the Ways and Means Committee after he was “admonished” by the House Ethics Committee. The Committee acted on the basis of information provided by NLPC about corporate-funded junkets to the Caribbean.
And Led to Meeks
Rangel had very few defenders but he did have one — Rep. Gregory Meeks of Queens. It was natural for us to take a look at him.
Our review quickly extended to his political network, and something called the New Direction Local Development Corporation. We found that the nonprofit did little development. Instead, it appeared to operate to the benefit of Meeks and Smith, and much of the money is simply unaccounted for. The group received at least $56,500 in New York state taxpayer funds, at the direction of Smith in the form of “member items,” the state equivalent of an earmark.
New Direction also collected thousands of dollars for Hurricane Katrina victims who never received the aid.
We provided the documents to the New York Post, which ran an article on January 31, 2010, the first of a wave of stories. The Katrina scam, in particular, provided fodder for Post headline writers.
In March 2010, NLPC filed a Complaint with the House Ethics Committee against Meeks for paying $830,000 for a newly built home that was worth more than $1.2 million. The Complaint was the basis for a New York Times story titled “Congressman Cries Poor, but Lifestyle May Disagree.”
After the FBI began a probe of his finances, apparently prompted by newspaper headlines, Meeks disclosed an unsecured personal loan of $40,000 from Guyanese-American businessman Edul Ahmad, prompting an investigation by the House Ethics Committee.
In 2011, the FBI arrested Ahmad after he boarded an airliner at JFK International Airport headed for Guyana. He was led off the plane in handcuffs. In October 2012, Ahmad pled guilty in a multi-million dollar mortgage-fraud scheme.
Ahmad’s scheme involved faking income for mortgage applicants and using straw buyers. The wide-ranging scheme relied on corrupt judges and court personnel whose loyalty was to the Queens political machine. Sampson was also the recipient of an unsecured “loan” from Ahmad, in the amount of $188,500.
True to Form
In December 2012, the House Ethics Committee announced that it could find nothing wrong with the Meeks loan, even though it was a loose thread to a much bigger scandal.
Meeks has also gone unscathed by the Justice Department. Then-Attorney General Eric Holder was from Queens. An indictment of a sitting member of Congress requires the approval of the Attorney General. His successor, Loretta Lynch, is even more tied into the Queens machine than Holder. It is unlikely that a Meeks indictment is forthcoming. In any other administration, Meeks would have been indicted years ago.
The indictment of state and local officials does not require the approval of the Attorney General. Most of the indictments in New York have been by the office of U.S. Attorney Bharara. While we do not know Bharara’s personal motivations, he has made a series of indictments based on information first uncovered by NLPC.
The big question is whether Bharara will now indict Cuomo, who has come under withering criticism for torpedoing the Moreland Commission from everyone, including the New York Times. We were very early to the party. We wrote in May 2013, even before the Moreland sinking:
Cuomo has recently proposed several modest reforms to make it easier to prosecute corrupt politicians, after not even mentioning corruption in his State of the State address in January. While we welcome these proposals, they should not be used by Cuomo to construct a narrative that it is himself against the crooks, a portrayal that is being uncritically accepted by much of the New York media.
Cuomo is not apart from a rotten political system. He sits atop it. He has hobnobbed for years, and accepted supported from, many of the same characters who are now being led away in handcuffs.
Nor is Cuomo exactly Mr. Clean. The tentacles of scandal are now so all-encompassing that it may be only a matter of time before we see the public reports of their reach into his own administration.
In photo: Dean Skelos, Andrew Cuomo, Sheldon Silver