Once-powerful senator facing federal corruption charges

Posted at: 05/06/2013 8:53 AM
Updated at: 05/07/2013 12:48 AM
By: Steve Flamisch

Sen. John Sampson, D-Brooklyn.
Sen. John Sampson, D-Brooklyn.

ALBANY -- State Sen. John Sampson, who led the chamber's majority conference from July 2009 until January 2011, was indicted Monday on federal corruption charges.

Sampson, D-Brooklyn, embezzled more than $400,000 from escrow accounts he controlled as a court-appointed referee in Kings County foreclosure proceedings, the indictment alleged.

"In one of the most extreme examples of political hubris that we have yet seen, the defendant...actually used some of the stolen monies to finance his 2005 campaign for Brooklyn district attorney," Loretta Lynch, the U.S. attorney for the eastern district of New York, said in a press conference.

After losing the race, Sampson borrowed money from a real estate associate to repay some of the stolen funds, the indictment alleged. When the unnamed associate was later charged with mortgage fraud, it is alleged Sampson told him to keep quiet about the loan, and that he took the man's check register to hide the transaction.

The longtime senator is even accused of having a mole in the U.S. Attorney's Office, and trying to use that person to gain non-public information about the case, including the names of witnesses.

"Sampson told his real estate associate about these efforts, going so far as to say that if he were to learn about cooperators in the associate's case, he could arrange to 'take them out,'" Lynch said.

Lynch did not elaborate on the meaning of that phrase. She declined to identify the mole, but she said that person was terminated.

The nine-count indictment unsealed Monday charged Sampson with two counts of embezzlement, one count of obstruction of justice, two counts of witness tampering, one count of evidence tampering, one count of concealing records, and two counts of making false statements.

"He lied about using the U.S. Attorney's Office employee to gain confidential information, and he lied about the check register page," George Venizelos, assistant director-in-charge of the FBI's New York office, said. "At the conclusion of the interview with FBI agents, they told Sampson he was lying. The best defense he had was, 'Not everything I told you was false.'"

Sampson, who turned himself in to authorities early Monday, pleaded not guilty and was released on $250,000 bond. Federal prosecutors have already offered him a plea deal, but Sampson's attorney has not publicly responded to it. Sampson is facing decades in prison if convicted.

Several news organizations previously reported that Sampson is "Senator No. 1" heard in secret recordings made by former Sen. Shirley Huntley, D-Queens, who wore a wire in exchange for leniency in her own corruption case. The unnamed senator allegedly asked Huntley to use her influence to help a businessman in her district.

Lynch declined to say whether Sampson is "Senator No. 1," but she said the charges filed Monday do not stem from the Huntley recordings. That investigation is continuing.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, appearing on the Capitol Pressroom radio program, said the Sampson case highlights the need for campaign finance reform.

"They don't want to do it," Cuomo said, referring to Senate leaders. "What I'm saying is, with today there's more of an urgency to do it. Denial is not a life strategy. I don't think they can say, 'Well, this is not a problem.'"

Sampson has represented the southeastern part of Brooklyn in the state Senate since 1997. He rose to statewide prominence following the June 2009 coup, in which dissident Democrats allowed Republicans to briefly seize control of the Senate. When the breakaway Democrats returned to their party's conference, Sampson became the new leader.

After Republicans regained control of the Senate in the 2010 elections, Sampson served as minority leader until Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins replaced him early this year.

"These allegations are deeply disturbing," Stewart-Cousins (D - Yonkers) said of the charges against Sampson. "The alleged activity represents an offensive violation of the public trust for which there is no place in our government."

Sampson, who is still a sitting senator, has been stripped of his ranking positions and committee assignments, Stewart-Cousins said. He will no longer conference with Senate Democrats.

In the past decade, more than 20 state lawmakers have been convicted of wrongdoing, and several others are awaiting trial or under investigation. Those scarred by scandal include three senate majority leaders.

In 2009, a jury convicted former Sen. Joseph Bruno, R-Brunswick, on federal corruption charges. A federal appeals court later overturned the conviction, but a grand jury handed-up another indictment. Bruno is waiting for a new trial.

Last year, former Sen. Pedro Espada Jr., D-Bronx, was convicted of embezzling money from his federally-funded health care system. He also pleaded guilty to tax evasion. He has yet to be sentenced.

Last month, Sen. Malcolm Smith, D-Queens, was indicted on charges he tried to bribe his way into the New York City mayoral race. He pleaded not guilty.

Barbara Bartoletti of the League of Women Voters said the scourge of corruption and alleged corruption points squarely to the need for public financing of campaigns.

Asked whether crooked politicians are born or made, Bartoletti did not hesitate.

"I think that most of the time, that they probably have that tendency to begin with," she said. "They are here to line their pockets, and this office gives them the ability to try to do that."