Will Preet Bharara prevent voters from being disenfranchised by costly $1 billion 421-a renewal ?

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, the nation's top federal prosecutor for New York's southern district. Source :  Progress Queens/Photo Illustration

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, the nation's top federal prosecutor for New York's southern district. Source :  Progress Queens/Photo Illustration

By LOUIS FLORES

Governor Andrew Cuomo (D-New York), under the influence of a “paranoid” aspect due to the on-going corruption probes by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, has resorted to double-speak to rationalize his support for controversial tax abatement program. 

Governor Cuomo had recently backed a straight extender of the controversial 421-a tax breaksfor luxury condo real estate developers.  

“The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so as not to derail the process, said Mr. Cuomo’s suggestion to extend the status quo was meant to apply pressure that would yield a compromise.” (The New York Times)

Advocates for tenants’ rights and government reform have argued that the 421-a tax breaks are ineffective and essentially act as a giveaway to wealthy real estate developers.  Advocates have argued that the tax breaks, which expire on June 15, should be ended.  

Yet, somehow, Governor Cuomo has taken the position that a straight extender, or a giveaway, to real estate developers would somehow lead to reforms of the program, according to Governor Cuomo’s disassociated thinking.

As Governor Cuomo deals with acceptance that U.S. Attorney Bharara’s “ultimate target is the governor himself,” it remains to be seen whether U.S. Attorney Bharara will act on his corruption probes before the state legislature renews the 421-a tax breaks.

Will voters be disenfranchised ?

The 421-a tax breaks cost New York City government $1,1 billion in annual lost tax revenues that, if the program could were ended and the tax revenues were collected, could, instead, be used to fund, for example, the huge capital improvement fund deficits of the New York City Public Housing Authority, or NYCHA, or the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, or MTA.  

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for New York’s southern district, now headed by U.S. Attorney Bharara, has been criticized by Richard Barr over having disenfranchised voters in connection with past corruption probes, in particular, by allowing voters from The Bronx to continue to blindly elect former Assemblymember Nelson Castro (D-The Bronx) to office, even though then Assemblymember Castro had been under investigation and was, consequently, secretly coöperating with federal prosecutors in connection with a bribery probe of Albany officials.

During the question and answer portion following a speech delivered on January 23, 2015, at New York Law School, U.S. Attorney Bharara defended his office’s actions to Mr. Barr in connection with the case against former Assemblymember Castro, saying, in part, that, “We make decisions all the time about when to be overt in an investigation and when to remain covert, because we have sometimes competing principles and interests,” adding further, that, “We, all the time, get information about someone engaging in bad conduct, and, sometimes, it’s the case you can’t prove it beyond a reasonable doubt.  And so, you let it go on,” he said, referring to the bad conduct, adding that, “and you monitor it, and you make sure that people are not unduly harmed in the broader interest of trying to make sure you can gather and develop enough evidence, so that when it becomes public, that person doesn’t flee, that person doesn’t destroy evidence, and that person can be held accountable and put in prison for as long as is deserved.”

U.S. Attorney Bharara qualified his comments by saying that, “In addition to that, we’re not only just talking about that person, because, sometimes, it comes to light that someone is engaged in bad conduct, but he or she is not the only one, or he or she is at the bottom of the totem pole, and there are six other bad guys,” adding that, “And, sometimes, with great care and sensitivity, you have to make judgment calls of how long you let something go on,” before saying that, “because, the goal is to hold responsible and to incapacitate as many people as possible, who are responsible for breaking the law.”

Speaking of his office’s development of its case against former Assemblymember Castro, U.S. Attorney Bharara said it was a “particularly difficult struggle, because at the time, if I recall correctly, at the time the election was coming up, we did not have all the evidence with respect to other people, who engaged in bad conduct, and so it is a legitimate question as to whether or not we should have thrown up our hands and called it a day and exposed that person and then gone home, as opposed to letting it run a little longer, so a number of other, additional people, including another public official, could be charge and held accountable.”

In explaining his office’s position, U.S. Attorney Bharara added, in part, that “we thought long and hard about it.  So, for people, who disagree with the decision” to allow former Assemblymember Castro to run for reëlection while under investigation, “you should understand that we didn’t do it in a cavalier way or in a casual way.  We thought about it a lot, because enfranchisement is important.”

Bharara’s probes have not matured in time before elections or budget deals

For years, U.S. Attorney Bharara has been investigating and prosecuting cases of political and campaign corruption of elected officials from City hall to Albany, bringing charges against at least 18 officials.   Yet, during that time, some government reform activists had been hoping that U.S. Attorney Bharara’s cases would mature in time to prevent the further disenfranchisement of voters.

For example, some government reform activists have formed a noisy corner on the Twitter social media network, from where these activists had hoped that U.S. Attorney Bharara’s corruption probes would have forced Governor Cuomo to step down from office before last year’s Democratic Party primary election.

When that did not happen, this digital army of Twitter activists had hoped that Governor Cuomo would step down before his swearing-in ceremony in January.

When that, too, did not happen, the Twitter activists had hoped that Governor Cuomo would step down before a series of opaque backroom deals led to the formation of the state budget at the end of last March.

That, too, did not happen.

Will real estate developers determine whether the $1 billion, 421-a tax breaks are renewed ?

At the January 23 speech at New York Law School, U.S. Attorney Bharara addressed, in part, the reasons he was serious about investigating cases of political and campaign corruption, referring to the bombshell arrest of former New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Lower East Side).

Referring to the powers and authorities of legislators working in the State Assembly, U.S. Attorney Bharara said, in part, “They decide about how much we pay for rent and housing and taxes and, as we revealed yesterday, that are about laws that are up for renewal right now in the body that we are talking about.”

U.S. Attorney Bharara has acknowledged himself the importance of enfranchising voters and of the important role of tenant and tax laws on the lives of citizens.

And nowhere can the nexus between corruption cases, on one side, and tenant and tax laws, on the other, be seen than in the looming deadline that the state legislature faces in its decision to either renew or let lapse the 421-a tax abatement program.

The 421-a tax abatement program has spawn investigations, arrests, and non-prosecution agreements, and it has played a role in several of the latest spree of corruption cases up in Albany.

As another deadline looms large over Albany and as U.S. Attorney Bharara is said to be creeping closer to Governor Cuomo, again the Twitter activists, ever expanding, openly wonder whether U.S. Attorney Bharara will act to make sure that corruption won’t influence the people’s business and that U.S. Attorney Bharara will make good on his promise to “hold responsible and to incapacitate as many people as possible, who are responsible for breaking the law,” including real estate developers.

Speaking generally about the effect of corruption on the passage of legislation, U.S. Attorney Bharara rhetorically asked at the January 23 address at New York Law School, “Given the allegation in case after case after case, how many other pending bills were born of bribery ?  And worse, how many passed bills were born of bribery or improper influence ?  How about items in the budget ?  How much of the work of the city and the state government is tarnished by tawdry graft ?”

Thus far, U.S. Attorney Bharara’s probes have led to the filing of criminal charges against public officials.  Lobbyists, including Brian Meara, and real estate developers, including Glenwood Management, have not been charged with wrong-doing, even though they have either reportedly known about or used monetary influences to either curry favor with legislators or to shape legislation.

A spokesperson for U.S. Attorney Bharara’s office declined to be interviewed last week for this article.

This article first appeared on the #Stop421a blog.