Assemblymember Scarborough pleads guilty, resigns, raising questions about Democratic Party leadership

Assemblymember William Scarborough (D-Queens).  Source :  Official Photograph/New York State Assembly

Assemblymember William Scarborough (D-Queens).  Source :  Official Photograph/New York State Assembly

By LOUIS FLORES

Assemblymember William Scarborough (D-Jamaica) resigned from office on Wednesday in advance of pleading guilty on Thursday to federal and state fraud and theft charges.

News about Assemblymember Scarborough's resignation was reported by The New York Daily News.

Contacted by Progress Queens on Thursday, an official in former Assemblymember Scarborough's Queens office refused to comment for this article.

According to a statement released by State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman (D-New York), former Assemblymember's federal and state fraud and theft charges were related to the submission of 174 false travel vouchers and the misuse of over $40,000 in campaign funds.

The landing page for Assemblymember William Scarborough on the New York State Assembly's Web site had been removed as of Thursday afternoon.  Source :  New York State Assembly

The landing page for Assemblymember William Scarborough on the New York State Assembly's Web site had been removed as of Thursday afternoon.  Source :  New York State Assembly

As part of federal and state plea agreements entered into by former Assemblymember Scarborough, the ex-legislator, aged 69, was expected to pay restitution to the state in the amount of $54,355, forfeiting that amount to the federal government, and to donate the remaining funds in his campaign committee to charity.  Both federal and state plea agreements were conditioned on former Assemblymember Scarborough's resignation from office, according to the state attorney general's statement.

In return for entering a negotiated guilty plea, former Assemblymember Scarborough is expected  to be sentenced on September 14, 2015, to approximately one year in jail.  Under federal guidelines, former Assemblymember had been facing a jail sentence of as many as 20 years on just one wire fraud count.

The state acted swiftly to effect the resignation.  By Thursday afternoon, former Assemblymember Scarborough's landing page on the New York State Assembly Web site had been removed. 

The federal charges had been prosecuted by the office of U.S. Attorney Richard Hartunian, the nation's top federal prosecutor in New York's northern district.  The case against former Assemblymember Scarborough is a high profile public corruption case for U.S. Attorney Hartunian, who, inexplicably, has otherwise turned his back on the series of corruption scandals rocking the state capital, as have District Attorney David Soares (D-Albany) and District Attorney Richard Brown (D-Queens).

A Manhattan federal prosecutor takes charge to prosecute corruption by Queens officials

In the wake of prosecutorial inaction from Albany to New York City against political and campaign corruption, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, the nation's top federal prosecutor in New York's southern district, has been leading the charge against government corruption, notably recently having prosecuted former State Senator Malcolm Smith (D-St. Albans) on charges of trying to bribe his way onto the 2013 New York City mayoral race on the Republic Party ballot.  The office of U.S. Attorney Bharara has also filed federal corruption charges against Assemblymember Sheldon Silver (D-Lower East Side) and State Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre).  U.S. Attorney Bharara's crackdown on corruption has been making waves up in Albany in the time before and immediately following the premature closure of the corruption-fighting panel known as the Moreland Commission.

The office of Loretta Lynch, the former U.S. Attorney for New York's eastern district and now the nation's Attorney General, had prosecuted former State Senator Shirley Huntley (D-South Jamaica) over charges of misusing approximately $87,000 in monies from a nonprofit charity group.

Other recent corruption cases have been or are being brought against Vincent Tabone, a former Republican Party operative in Queens, Councilmember Ruben Wills (D-Richmond Hill), and former Councilmember Daniel Halloran (R-Whitestone).

The charges of misusing a few thousand dollars against each of former Assemblymember Scarborough and former State Senator Huntley and the charges of filing an inaccurate disclosure document by Councilmember Wills pale in comparison to some of the more egregious reports of possible political and campaign misconduct being published about Albany officials.  

The charges against Councilmember Wills, for example, relate the filing of an inaccurate disclosure document, an act that has been committed by other officials, notably by Public Advocate Letitia James (D-New York City) and Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito (D-Spanish Harlem).  However, no prosecutor brought criminal charges against either Public Advocate James or Council Speaker Mark-Viverito over the filing of inaccurate disclosure documents.

The lack of consistency in respect of filing criminal corruption charges against public officials or political operatives is no more glaring that what is being widely reported about the culture of corruption up in Albany.

A possible pattern of quid pro quo

On the same day when former Assemblymember Scarborough was set to come before federal and state judges to enter his negotiated guilty pleas, the journalists Matthew Cunningham-Cook and David Sirota published a report in The International Business Times revealing that the administration of Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-New York) had awarded to three banks over $100 million in bond issuances on behalf of the state during a time when the three banks had steered over $130,000 in campaign contributions to Gov. Cuomo's campaign committee.  The awarding of the bond issuances were made without a competitive bidding process, the report indicated, further adding that the arrangement of awarding bond issuances to banks, who are the source of campaign contributions, violates federal rules that forbid campaign contributors from receiving state bond issuance mandates.

The total value of the bond issuance mandates awarded by the Cuomo administration to the three banks, identified as Bank of America, Citigroup, and JPMorgan Chase, was later increased to $3 billion, according to a subsequent report published by The International Business Times.

The appearance of quid pro quo in the bond issuance deals appears reminiscent of another arrangement the Cuomo administration may have made with the large and wealth real estate development firm, Extell Development Company.  During the time and immediately after when Extell was seeking state legislative approval for a $35 million tax abatement arrangement for its $2 billion luxury condominium tower on West 57th Street in Manhattan, the company funneled approximately $300,000 in contributions to campaign committees controlled by Gov. Cuomo, according to a report published by The Real Deal.  

Progress Queens contacted the press office of U.S. Attorney Bharara for comment about the reports published by The International Business Times, but a press official declined to address the bond issuance transactions for this article.

The Extell tax transaction had piqued the interest of the now-defunct corruption-fighting panel known as the Moreland Commission.  After the Moreland Commission was prematurely scuttled by backroom budget negotiations in March 2014, U.S. Attorney Bharara's office reportedly opened its own investigation of the Extell tax transaction, according to a report published by The New York Post.  There has been no public disposition of the reported federal probe into the Extell tax transaction.

Public corruption cases claim many Democratic Party officials in Queens, but no response from Queens Democratic Party chair

U.S. Representative Joseph Crowley (D-Queens), right, with former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, left, at a 2011 event.  U.S. Representative Crowley is the chair of the Democratic Party County Committee of Queens.  As such, he determines which officials run for office with the Democratic Party's institutional support.  Source :  Official Photograph/Office of U.S. Representative Joseph Crowley/Flickr

U.S. Representative Joseph Crowley (D-Queens), right, with former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, left, at a 2011 event.  U.S. Representative Crowley is the chair of the Democratic Party County Committee of Queens.  As such, he determines which officials run for office with the Democratic Party's institutional support.  Source :  Official Photograph/Office of U.S. Representative Joseph Crowley/Flickr

In Queens, the chair of the Democratic Party County Committee of Queens is U.S. Representative Joseph Crowley (D-Queens).  As chair, U.S. Representative Crowley consents to the candidates, who run for office on the Democratic Party line.  The campaigns of the candidates endorsed by the County Committee benefit from receiving the institutional resources of the Democratic Party, which can include key support to collect sufficient ballot petition signatures to survive legal challenges of opponents.

Progress Queens contacted the office of U.S. Representative Crowley for comment about how the County Committee plans to address the spate of corruption cases affecting Democratic Party officials elected to represent Queens, but no response was received from U.S. Representative Crowley's office.

At a speech delivered at New York Law School on January 23, 2015, U.S. Attorney Bharara expressed some frustration with taxpayers, who, in his view, contributed, as voters, to a pattern of reëlecting bad politicians at a rate that made it more likely that a New York State Senator would "be arrested by the authorities than to be defeated at the polls."

In defense of voters, though, it is not the voters, who determine if and which candidates receive major political party institutional support.  In respect of the Democratic Party, county committee leaders and the state campaign committee leaders determine if and which candidates receive political party institutional support.

For example, when Fordham University Law School professor Zephyr Teachout challenged, as a reform candidate, the incumbent Gov. Cuomo in last year's gubernatorial race, Democratic Party leaders challenged Professor Teachout's balloting petition signatures, they took her to court, forcing her to waste valuable campaign committee funds on legal fees, and they blocked her from even receiving a public audience with Gov. Cuomo, thereby preventing the public from benefiting from an open debate of ideas between the candidates.

Thus, when U.S. Attorney Bharara may ask that voters "should think about getting angry" over the pattern of political and campaign corruption by elected leaders, as he said at the New York Law School speech, even U.S. Attorney Bharara apparently fails to grasp that one of the greatest impediments to reforming the broken political system is overcoming the lock that the two major political parties have on determining which candidates are allowed to participate in primary election races.

The influence that the major political parties are able to exert on challenger candidates includes forcing the challenger candidates to employ campaign consultants and election law attorneys, who have preëxisting loyalties to the major political parties, which employ the campaign consultants and election law attorneys with great regularity.  Another way that the major political parties are able to exert influence on challenger candidates includes challenging the ballot petition signatures of challenger candidates, which are often collected by the conflicted campaign consultants, before state court justices, who are, in turn, elected to their judicial posts often with the help of the county committees of the major political parties and with the assistance of the same campaign consultants, who have preëxisting loyalties to the major political parties.

To many government reform activists, it is this unseen interlocking network of campaign consultants, election law attorneys, and state court justices, who are inclined to defend the interests of the entrenched incumbents about whom U.S. Attorney Bharara complained, that block the ability of reform candidates to replace corrupted politicians in elected office.

Progress Queens has spoken with several government reform activists, who are based in Queens, about the orchestrated silence by national Democratic Party leaders, who are based in New York.  Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is campaigning for the Democratic Party president primary in 2016 ; U.S. Senator Charles Schumer (D-New York), who is seeking to be the next senior Democratic Party official in the upper federal legislative chamber ; and U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York), who some speculate may be positioning herself to one day run for president, have all made no public commitment to fight the runaway corruption that is threatening to devour the Democratic Party in the state they each call home.