Put the thieves in jail, but also return the real estate being looted

The investigations and prosecutions being waged by the office of U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara are historic.

In the span of less than two years, the leaders of both state legislative chambers were arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to several years behind bars.

On 3 May, former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Lower East Side) was sentenced to 12 years after being convicted of seven counts of Federal corruption charges, including extortion, conspiracy, and the theft of honest services of an elected official.

On 12 May, former State Sen. Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) was sentenced to five years after having been convicted last November along with his son, Adam Skelos, on eight counts of Federal corruption charges, including extortion and conspiracy.

In a show of an equitable resolution for taxpayers, who were no doubt robbed by the official misconduct by the convicted legislative leaders, former Assembly Speaker Silver was assessed fines and penalties of $6,75 million, and former State Sen. Skelos and the younger Mr. Skelos were assessed fines and penalties of over $800,000.

Their convictions were the latest in a series of investigations and prosecutions that have steadily escalated the number of state legislators, who have been convicted of political or campaign corruption.

Thirty-three state legislators have been removed from office since 2000 as a consequence of corruption, according to a corruption tracker published by the good government group, Citizens Union.

At a speech delivered at New York Law School on 23 January 2015, U.S. Attorney Bharara spoke about the influence of corruption on the official acts of some government officials, saying, in relevant part, “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 ?”

The seemingly endless pattern of legislative sleaze has rightly fixed the gaze of the nation’s top Federal prosecutor on the state’s capital, which U.S. Attorney Bharara has aptly described as a “cauldron of corruption.”

Now, the U.S. Attorney’s Office has trained its gaze on New York City Hall, given the number of reported investigations that are now being conducted of the official and campaign activities of the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio (D-New York City).

But as Progress Queens has reported, a past Federal corruption investigation of the administration of then Mayor Ed Koch (D-New York City) left corruptly negotiated contracts intact.

An untold number of real estate contracts, particularly lease agreements, had been negotiated by a former Koch administration official, Alex Liberman, under the influence of bribes and kickbacks. Despite Mr. Liberman pleading guilty to racketeering charges and having been sentenced to 12 years of prison, the City of New York took no action to invalidate the business contracts that came into being as a result of his criminality, according to the 1988 muckracking book, “City For Sale,” by Jack Newfield and Wayne Barrett.

It is an act of justice for a fraudulent public official to be prosecuted for corruption, but the public is not made whole merely by incarcerating a corrupt public official. There still remains the necessary duty of undoing the corrupt acts of such an official.

Because U.S. Attorney Bharara has boasted of the powers and authorities of his office, he has at his disposal the ability to end contracts that were corruptly negotiated by government officials during the conduct of their fraud.

An example of the powers and authorities available to U.S. Attorney Bharara was the deferred prosecution agreement his office negotiated to resolve allegations of corruption in the massive CityTime technology project, wherein officials at the project's principal government contractors participated in fraud to overbill City of New York taxpayers to the tune of $600 million. The settlement agreement called for the return of $500 million.

Besides celebrating the arrest, trial, sentencing, and conviction of corrupt government officials, the U.S. Attorney’s Office must not repeat the same mistake committed in the 1980’s, when the corruptly negotiated contracts approved by Mr. Liberman were allowed to stand.

Given voters’ complaints about the possibility of corruption involving the sale or disposition of strategic public assets, such as parks, community gardens, libraries, nonprofit healthcare facilities, and public housing, any such contract must not be allowed to stand if it can be shown that the contract was corruptly negotiated by a government official later investigated for fraud or other criminality.

Before prosecutors celebrate the thieves being put behind bars, the prosecutors should return the loot to the public.

  -- Progress Queens