Despite high number of Federal prosecutions of Queens officials, political influence over Courts remains unmoved

The distribution, by county, of the number of public corruption prosecutions brought by Manhattan Federal prosecutors during the term of former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara revealed that Queens County was tied for second-highest, based on a calculation made by Progress Queens.

A mathematical calculation of counties was performed by Progress Queens of the residence or the jurisdictional reach of public officials or political operatives, who have been prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney's Office for New York's southern district during the term of former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara. Queens was tied with the Bronx as the county with the second-highest number of officials, who have been prosecuted on corruption charges by Manhattan Federal prosecutors. This calculation was based on information provided to Progress Queens by the Manhattan Federal prosecutors' office. Federal prosecutors provided a report of cases, and Progress Queens identified the counties that were used in the composition of this histogram. Source : U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York/Progress Queens/Python

A mathematical calculation of counties was performed by Progress Queens of the residence or the jurisdictional reach of public officials or political operatives, who have been prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney's Office for New York's southern district during the term of former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara. Queens was tied with the Bronx as the county with the second-highest number of officials, who have been prosecuted on corruption charges by Manhattan Federal prosecutors. This calculation was based on information provided to Progress Queens by the Manhattan Federal prosecutors' office. Federal prosecutors provided a report of cases, and Progress Queens identified the counties that were used in the composition of this histogram. Source : U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York/Progress Queens/Python

By LOUIS FLORES

From Buffalo to Brooklyn to Manhattan to Queens, reports are indicating that political county committee officials are exerting greater influence over the State's court system.

In Buffalo, a judge pleaded guilty to accepting bribes from the lawyer and political operative G. Steven Pigeon in exchange for, amongst other things, providing beneficial rulings to Mr. Pigeon's clients in court cases, according to Federal charges filed in a related case, which were recounted in a report published by The New York Times. In each of Brooklyn and Manhattan, a judge was initially denied the endorsement of the respective Democratic Party county committee over reports that county committee officials were retaliating against judicial candidates over their judicial independence. And in Queens, the family of, and a law firm with political close ties to, U.S. Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-Queens) have reportedly been profiting and exerting influence over some of the courts. U.S. Rep. Crowley serves as the chair of the Queens Democratic County Committee. His office did not answer an interview request made by Progress Queens for this report.

Of these allegations of judicial influence or interference, investigators are only known to be probing and prosecuting allegations in Buffalo. In the three counties in New York City, allegations that political calculations are influencing the administration of the courts have so far not been reported to be leading to investigations. As reported by Progress Queens, the top Municipal prosecutors must run for office with the support of their respective political party county committee. Because of the supermajority of registered Democratic Party voters in New York City, the influence of or support from Democratic Party county committees largely determines the winner in political races for District Attorney. As a result of this political reliance, District Attorneys may be conflicted to investigate officials with ties to the political party county committee that provides to District Attorneys the requisite support to win elections. A potential conflict of interest between District Attorneys and significant political officials is reflected in a manual of guidelines applicable to Federal prosecutors, which acknowledges that Municipal prosecutors may have difficulty bringing at least one type of criminal charge against significant Government officials, which would pose special problems for Municipal prosecutors.

The potential for conflicts of interest in a District Attorney's office is not theoretical. In Buffalo, where reports of investigations of public corruption have been maturing into prosecution cases -- including against at least one former New York State Supreme Court justice -- former Erie County Assistant District Attorney Mark Sacha made the public accusation that then District Attorney Frank Sedita (D-Erie) was refusing to investigate allegations of corruption against Mr. Pigeon. Mr. Pigeon was the former chair of the Erie Democratic County Committee. After State prosecutors filed a second round of criminal charges against Mr. Pigeon, Mr. Sacha held a press conference to essentially say, "I told you so."

It is not known what explains District Attorney inaction in New York City on political and campaign corruption cases, including cases that may involve allegations of the corruption of the administration of the courts

According to information obtained by Progress Queens, it is not possible to confirm when reluctance, either real or perceived, by a District Attorney's office to investigate a Government official leads to a Federal investigation to compensate for a Municipal prosecutor's inaction. Different prosecutors' offices are motivated by policing the violation of different sets of laws. Criminal corruption cases brought by the offices of Federal prosecutors, in large part, are predicated on the violation of Federal laws. According to information obtained by Progress Queens, there are instances when Federal prosecutors consider prosecuting cases that involve the violation of State laws ; in those cases, Federal prosecutors reportedly confer with Municipal prosecutors to determine the best venue to try those cases. Other factors may determine the venue of corruption cases, according to information obtained by Progress Queens, and those factors may determine which prosecutors' office brings forward a corruption case. Those factors may include the evidence provided by a victim or a witness, evidence uncovered by a prosecutors' office during the course of an existing investigation, or the referral to a specific prosecutors' office from a law enforcement or regulatory agency. The office of the New York State Attorney General has, at times, asserted jurisdiction to conduct investigations or prosecutions, and this assertion could be made on other factors. The highest-ranking State prosecutor, State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman (D-New York), must run a political campaign to win elected office.

During the term of former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, Federal prosecutors in the office he once headed brought forward six cases of public corruption for officials who resided, or whose public office had jurisdiction, in Queens. In total, the office of former U.S. Attorney Bharara brought 35 cases of public corruption. These calculations were made by Progress Queens based on information supplied by the U.S. Attorney's Office for New York's southern district. The incidence of Queens-based cases tied Queens with The Bronx as the second-highest county of origin for public corruption cases brought during the tenure of former U.S. Attorney Bharara. Despite such Federal scrutiny on Queens-based officials, reports indicate that political influence over Queens County courts is once again a problem. For a prior report published by Progress Queens, the press office of District Attorney Richard Brown (D-Queens) declined to confirm or deny the existence of investigations by the Municipal prosecutors' office.

It is not known what explains why reports of political interference in Erie County courts are investigated, for example, but not in Queens County. Conflicts of interests have been reported to exist, at times, for top Federal prosecutors. The two waves of criminal charges that have been brought against Mr. Pigeon in Buffalo were the product of Federal and/or State investigators and reportedly involved the execution of search warrants by agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. However, recent, large corruption cases being brought against Buffalo officials required the recusal of former U.S. Attorney William Hochul, Jr., the top Federal prosecutor for New York's western district, according to a report published by State of Politics blog.

Because of the pressure, in part, on Federal prosecutors to bring the kinds of cases that other prosecutors cannot, Federal prosecutors face a challenge to win difficult cases. During investigations, particularly politically-sensitive investigations, the actions by Federal prosecutors must be conducted independently to be accorded credibility by the public. Nevertheless, the actions undertaken by broad authority by some Federal attorneys are increasingly being questioned. In criminal cases, the targets of Federal prosecutions have expressed criticism of the tactics and methods used by Federal prosecutors to commence and conduct investigations. In civil cases, where the attorneys from the Federal prosecutors' offices represent the Federal Government, some conduct is also being questioned. It has been shown that attorneys with Federal prosecutors' offices will produce on the eve of court appearances months-old documents that were never provided to the parties, despite the making of such misrepresentations in court proceedings, and these and other misrepresentations, including the introduction of altered documents into the court record, are seemingly never questioned by the courts, even when challenged by the parties. The courts often defer to prosecutors when prosecutorial misconduct is challenged, out of a deference to protect the reputation of prosecutors. A general aversion to transparency by prosecutors' offices, generally and specifically, also contribute to a climate of secrecy that has also become the source of criticism by anti-corruption activists. Furthermore, the over-prosecution of targets of Federal investigations, like the use of anti-racketeering laws, to build prosecution cases against tenants of New York City's public housing developments, have also been the source of criticism.

The timing of attempts at prosecutorial and judicial accountability

The disparate prosecutorial response to allegations of corruption, including of the exerting of political influence over the courts, between Buffalo and New York City, and questions about prosecutorial integrity, have received isolated attention, according to some anti-corruption activists. When top prosecutors, such as former U.S. Attorney Bharara, have invoked the language of reform or accountability, they have acted to support the work of reform being advanced by anti-corruption activists. However, former U.S. Attorney Bharara and other top prosecutors have appeared to inexplicably and deliberately stop short of investigating corruption that may explain prosecutorial or judicial misconduct. Even the reported, wide-ranging Federal corruption investigation of the New York Police Department has appeared to reach an end without an explanation. Until the Federal commitment against Government corruption includes fighting law enforcement and judicial misconduct, prosecutors' invocation of the language of accountability will ring hallow to anti-corruption activists, according to information obtained by Progress Queens.

Separately, some anti-corruption activists have noted the timing of the maturation of the investigations in Buffalo and the reports of allegations in Queens. Western New York is a political strong-hold of Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-New York), who is expected to seek reëlction in 2018. Queens was, until recently, a traditional power center in determining the outcome of the speakership race for the New York City Council, which is reportedly underway. To some Government reform activists, reports of corruption only surface in corporate-owned media outlets as a vehicle to pressure prosecutors to open investigations to achieve the short-term electoral goals of nameless, ambitious politicians. Because of the prolific, anti-corruption work of the office of former U.S. Attorney Bharara, and to a promising extent that of the office of former U.S. Attorney Robert Capers, expectations for accountability and for reform were raised. However, gains that were recently made in accountability was largely shaped by the philosophy of the leaders of each respective Federal prosecutors' offices based in New York City and may not have been a reflection of a new culture of law enforcement agencies. Following the purging of Obama-era holdover appointments at the U.S. Department of Justice by the Trump administration, Government reform activists have been grappling with the fact that the leadership of Federal prosecutors' offices still remains subject to political influence. Although progress was undoubtedly being made against corruption during the terms of U.S. Attorneys Bharara and Capers, their work was superficial, if it did not reach to the roots that can still spread into the court systems from Buffalo to New York City, some Government reform activists say. In Queens Housing Court, for example, politically-connected attorneys representing institutional landlords personally escort their clients into courtrooms before judges, who are, in turn, selected by advisory committees that include lawyers with ties to institutional landlords. The potential for conflicts of interest are systemic, and the prosecutorial work against corruption has failed to reach the sources of the problem : the role of money in politics and the influence of politics on the courts, according to information obtained by Progress Queens.

Reference Documents

Recommended Reading