Malcolm Smith and the alleged plot to rig the New York City mayoral race, explained

Malcolm A. Smith. (Tim Roske/AP)
State Sen. Malcolm Smith. (Tim Roske/AP)

Early Tuesday morning, the New York Times and New York Post broke the news of the arrest of a state senator and a city councilman in a major federal corruption probe. They are accused of attempted to rig the city's upcoming mayoral election. Four other New York political figures from both sides of the aisle were arrested as part of the alleged scheme.

Intrigued? Confused? Us too. Here's everything you need to know about the case.

What happened? 

The probe involves both the New York City mayoral race and a development project in Spring Valley, New York, a small village in Rockland County.

A Democratic state senator, Malcolm Smith, is charged with bribing Republican officials, with help from Queens Republican city councilman Daniel Halloran, as part of his attempted bid to get on the GOP mayoral ticket. Bronx Republican Party Chairman Jay Savino and Queens County Republican Party Vice Chairman Vincent Tabone are accused of taking bribes to help Smith get on the ballot as a Republican. The bribe money came from a real estate developer who was actually an undercover agent (aren't they always?); in exchange for the cash Smith agreed to help the developer get funding for a project in Spring Valley, New York. Halloran was allegedly angling for a job in Smith's mayoral administration.

Halloran is also accused of promising city council funds to the developer in exchange for money for himself. Democratic Spring Valley Mayor Noramie Jasmin, a member of the village's board of trustees, is accused of voting to give Spring Valley land to the real estate developer and promising him state funds in exchange for an ownership stake in the project. Spring Valley Deputy Mayor Joseph Desmaret, another board member, is charged with selling his vote on the project for cash.

Can I just read the complaint myself?

Sure. Here it is, courtesy of Politicker:

What's this "Wilson Pakula" thing?

Basically, it prevents a candidate from winning the party's nomination without support from its leaders. Because he's a registered Democrat, Smith would need authorization from the Republican Party to run on their ballot line. That authorization is known as a Wilson-Pakula certificate, after former Assemb. Malcolm Wilson (R-Yonkers) and state Sen. Irwin Pakula (R-Long Island City), who authored a 1947 act barring a candidate from running on a party's ballot line without the support of a majority of party committee members in a relevant jurisdiction. In this case, that means three of the five Republican county chairmen in New York City. Reports suggest Smith was struggling to win over GOP bigwigs.

So, who is Malcolm Smith?

A protege of former congressman Floyd Flake, Smith was first elected to the state Senate in 2000 representing southeastern Queens. He became the first African-American Senate majority leader in 2009, when Democrats took control of the chamber. But his moment in the sun was short-lived. An upstate billionaire -- inspired in part by Smith's incessant Blackberry-checking during a meeting -- helped two Democrats defect and give the GOP control of the Senate only five months later.

This past December, Smith turned the tables, joining a group of Independent Democrats that agreed to caucus jointly with the Senate GOP, depriving the Democratic Party of control. As an African-American, he brought a helpful dose of diversity to an entirely white caucus. He has made his interest in a GOP mayoral bid known last summer.

The current probe is not Smith's first brush with the law. In 2010 he was subpoenaed as part of an inspector general's investigation into a Queens casino contract. The deal was killed before the IG's scathing report came out. According to the New York Post, a federal probe of that situation is underway. A federal grand jury has also looked into Smith's relationship with a Queens charter school, according to the New York Daily News, and prosecutors have also investigated a non-profit and related charity co-founded by Smith.

What about Dan Halloran?

Halloran was elected to the city council from Queens in 2009. He ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. House last year. Halloran considers himself a Libertarian Republican and is known for his unapologetic, confrontational style. He also practices Theodism, a neo-Pagan religion based on Germanic tribal traditions, a faith that became an issue in his city council race. Halloran made headlines in 2010 for claiming that sanitation workers engaged in a slowdown after that year's major snowstorm; the city Department of Investigation found no basis for his story and he faced a contempt charge for refusing to name his sources.

How were they caught?

With the undercover officer, a cooperating witness, and wiretaps. "Clearly aware the scheme was illegal, Tabone patted down the undercover to see if he was wearing a recording device," FBI Assistant Director George Venizelos said Tuesday of one meeting. "He was—but Tabone was less skilled at conducting a pat-down than he was at conducting a shakedown.

What does all of this mean for the mayoral race?

Well, Smith probably won't be the GOP candidate. Tabone was a key alley of John Catsimatidis, another mayoral candidate. So it's good news for Joe Lhota, former MTA chairman and another Republican mayoral hopeful -- except insofar as it makes the Bronx and Queens GOP look bad. Savino had already backed Lhota; Halloran just did last week. According to the complaint, Smith wanted the bribe recipients to "stand on the Empire State Building, and drop every person you endorsed, and hold Malcolm up and say he's the best thing since sliced bread."

Why are New York state politics so corrupt?

In the past six years, 11 state senators have been arrested in New York. That's more than the nine who have lost reelection. What gives?

"An absence of accountability and competitiveness in our politics," says SUNY New Paltz Professor Gerald Benjamin. While he's quick to point out that plenty of other state governments deal with ethics scandals, he says New York's problems stem from uncompetitive districts. Incumbents become entrenched, amass power and become convinced that they can basically do what they want.

"When people are unaccountable and they feel untouchable, they feel they can engage in any behavior that enriches them or advances their ambition," Benjamin said. "Your only constraint is your own moral code, and unfortunately for some individuals that is not constraining."

There's also the expense of running for office in New York. As Halloran himself allegedly said, according to the complaint: "That's politics, that's politics, it's all about how much. Not about whether or will, it's about how much and that's our politicians in New York, they're all like that, all like that. And they get like that because of the drive that the money does for everything else. You can't do anything without the [expletive] money."

Real, independent redistricting would help, Benjamin says, as would public financing of elections.

Rachel Weiner covers cops and courts in Arlington and Alexandria.
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