For the second time this week, a New York state legislator is under arrest for bribery, and this time, prosecutors say, the member of the assembly tried to pass a law that would have enabled his co-defendants to break the law.
“So here we go again,” U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said in a news conference to unseal the criminal complaint against State Assemblyman Eric Stevenson (D-Bronx) and four local businessmen. The legal action and arrest of the state legislator and his alleged accomplices came just two days after federal agents arrested State Senator Malcolm Smith, City Councilmember Dan Halloran and four other political leaders arrested for bribery and other charges.
Stevenson’s charges were similar: fraud, bribery and conspiracy. “Assemblyman Stevenson basically said ‘show me the money,'” Bharara said, “and the money was shown over and over again.”
Specifically, Stevenson is accused of receiving $22,000, mostly in cash, from businessmen Igor Belyansky, Rostislav “Slava” Belyansky, Igor Tsimerman and David Binman. Most of the payments came in envelopes that were handed to Stevenson personally, once in a hotel bathroom, and in a car, for privacy. One payment, according to the complaint, was being made at a Bronx steakhouse, but Stevenson, concerned about surveillance cameras at the restaurant, insisted on taking payment outside on the sidewalk. The person making the payment, who was cooperating with investigators, was actually recording the transaction electronically, while agents watched remotely. The decision to move outside of the restaurant actually ended up helping the investigation.
Prosecutors say that the four businessmen own and operate senior adult day care centers, social and service centers for senior citizens whose services are often paid for by taxpayers, through Medicaid. The businessmen wanted Stevenson to quickly clear legislative hurdles to get two adult day care centers open. Stevenson obliged, prosecutors said, in a remarkably accomodating way.
“[It was] an especially breathtaking case of corruption, even by Albany standards,” said Bharara. Stevenson introduced Assembly Bill A5139, which called for a moratorium on the construction of adult day care centers. The legislation would eliminate competition to the businessmen’s centers, leaving their facilities to be the sole beneficiaries of streams of Medicaid money.
In exchange for Stevenson’s legislative largesse, the businessmen not only paid him, according to the criminal complaint, but they also intended to name one of two centers Stevenson helped to get opened named after Stevenson’s grandfather. One of the centers — not named after Stevenson’s grandfather — is already open. It’s the New Age Social Center at 2287 Jerome Avenue in the Bronx.
That adult day care center is in the legislative district of another assemblyman who, according to the criminal complaint, worked with investigators against Stevenson in an effort to be freed of bribery charges himself. That legislator is Nelson Castro, also a Democrat.
Castro was outfitted with audio and video surveillance devices, and in one instance recorded Stevenson confessing to being well aware that he was doing wrong. “If half the people up here in Albany was ever caught for what they do,” Stevenson said in a conversation, “they… would probably be in [jail]. So who are they bullsh**ting?”
Stevenson also, in conversations cited in the criminal complaint, mentioned former state controller Alan Hevesi, who was sentenced to prison for corruption, and others.
“Look what they gave [City Councilmember] Miguel [Martinez] from Washington Heights… five years,” Stevenson was recorded as saying. In another recorded conversation, he said, “Look what they gave [State Senator] Efrain [Gonzalez], seven years.” Stevenson seemed to be fully aware that his illegal transactions could bring him down, but continued anyway, according to the prosecutor.
Another politico, a former candidate for state senate, also worked with investigators in an attempt to get unrelated charges against him reduced. The U.S. attorney expressed frustration that it was both necessary — and not difficult — to involve political figures in this case to bring down one of their colleagues, and that there is yet another case of bribery in New York state politics.
“Common sense tells you that when it was so easy for them to take money,” Bharara said, “it makes you wonder.” He said that voters “should be angry” at the level of corruption evident in New York politics, but he also had a warning for legislators. “You have to worry that one of your colleagues is working with us [in law enforcement.]”