NEW YORK (AP) -- A top federal prosecutor criticized the "unmistakable pervasiveness of corruption" in Albany as he promised on Monday to boost his office’s efforts to expose politicians’ crimes.
U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara made the pledge at a gathering organized by the Citizens Crime Commission in Manhattan as he denounced corruption, citing a "casualness and a cockiness" shown by corrupt politicians. He called upon politicians, the press and the public to fight the growing problem.
"We cannot just prosecute our way to cleaner government," Bharara said several weeks after announcing criminal prosecutions that resulted in arrests on public corruption charges of a state senator, an assemblyman and a New York City councilman, among other political figures.
Still, he added: "Given the unmistakable pervasiveness of corruption, we are redoubling our efforts and will seek to be even more aggressive than in the past."
He described a case in which envelopes of cash were exchanged behind a steakhouse on Valentine’s Day.
"It makes you want to ask, with some frustration: ‘What is this, the ‘80s? Have we not progressed at all?"’ he said.
Bharara said he recently met with the head of the New York FBI office to discuss expanding corruption efforts and had added employees to his office’s public corruption unit over the last year and a half.
He called on state officials to curtail a "substantial transparency problem throughout New York government" that exists even though numerous new databases and websites give the illusion of transparency. Some of them are so difficult to navigate that they are not much more helpful than information locked in a filing cabinet, Bharara said.
He said current rules for legislators also make it too easy for them to hide money gained illegally.
"When every state or local elected official is able to lawfully moonlight as a lawyer or accountant or consultant and may lawfully withhold deep details of that work, prosecutors face substantial challenges," Bharara said.
The prosecutor credited efforts in Albany at reform, including recent measures to limit contributions, spending terms and discretionary funds, along with measures to repeal some laws and mandate more transparency and to compel the reporting of crime.
"New Yorkers should not settle for something weak when there is an appetite and an opportunity for something strong," he said.
Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, after the latest federal investigations yielded arrests, announced several proposals. His first would give local prosecutors more power to investigate political corruption and would require lawmakers to report suspicious activities of colleagues or face misdemeanors. He also has proposed an independent board, headed by his appointee, to investigate campaign finance and related corruption cases.
Bharara, whose office has successfully prosecuted scores of people in a massive Wall Street insider-trading case, the first Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detainee to be taken to a civilian U.S. court and a pirate captured off Somalia, called upon the media to go beyond reporting the results of political corruption probes and expose new evidence of corrupt officials and practices.
Saying the ranks of those convicted of public corruption charges in recent years had "swelled to unacceptable levels," he read the names of five convicted state senators, two state assemblymen and three members of the New York City Council.
"It is the kind of roll call that causes frustrated prosecutors to wonder, from time to time, whether our most corrupt public officials are even capable of being deterred from committing crimes," he said. "It increasingly seems that the best way to find Albany on the map is to look for the intersection of greed and ambition."
Associated Press writer Michael Gormley contributed to this report from Albany.