Shadowy corporate affiliates found corrupting New York State

A politically connected organization had just received a large grant from New York State, but its executives were not satisfied. For years, the organization had paid considerable sums to a business owned by a politician. The politician was helping the organization win grants, but the grants were not worth as much as the amount that had been invested.

In an email obtained in a new state investigation, an executive said a colleague had felt “insulted” by what was seen as insufficient payback.

“It was likely that over the last 15 years, we had paid [the official] …. more than [the official] was now giving us,” the executive wrote, with the names omitted in a report that a panel investigating corruption in Albany released on Monday.

The bald expression of transactional expectations was among the most striking examples of possible misconduct uncovered by the panel, known as a Moreland Act Commission. The panel said it had found possible sham nonprofit groups funded with public money, lawmakers who seemed to be seeking reimbursement from the state for travel expenses that had already been paid by their campaigns, and businesses that effectively sought to buy legislation with targeted campaign donations.

The panel did not name names, leaving Albany to play a guessing game about which elected officials, businessmen and political donors might soon be embarrassed — and which of them could face prosecution. The report said investigators had already uncovered “deplorable conduct, some of it perfectly legal yet profoundly wrong; some of it potentially illegal.”

“We’ve found some shocking things, but we have to do more complete investigations,” Kathleen M. Rice, the Nassau County district attorney and a co-chairwoman of the panel, said in an interview, adding: “What is far more corrosive and pervasive is all the stuff they do that’s legal and shouldn’t be. It’s almost like: ‘Wait, what? You’re allowed to do that?’ ”

It also remains unclear how long the investigations will continue. The commission’s primary charge is to recommend broad reforms to the state’s political system, more so than to build cases against individual politicians. NY Governor Andrew Cuomo wants to negotiate an agreement with legislative leaders on new ethics measures, and it is possible that future investigatory work could be curbed if a deal is reached.

Speaking to reporters in Manhattan on Tuesday, the governor, a Democrat, said that the report offered evidence that the Legislature needed to pass new ethics laws to restore the public’s trust in government.

“We need to do more,” he said. “The connection of money and politics is not a good one, and the commission’s report makes that clear once again.”

The panel said it had conducted what it described as undercover operations, including surveillance, recorded telephone calls and, in at least one instance, the use of a camera installed to a pole outside a storefront that appeared to house possible sham nonprofit organizations. It has issued 200 subpoenas, collected millions of pages of documents and conducted dozens of interviews and depositions, according to the report. And, in an effort to analyze large quantities of campaign fund-raising, lobbying and other data, it hired an investigative consultancy, K2 Intelligence, to make use of a data analytics platform initially developed for counterterrorism and intelligence gathering.

The report said the data analysis had allowed the commission to identify hard-to-trace relationships between companies and individuals, and ultimately would help investigators “identify eyebrow-raising patterns of potential misconduct.”

In one case, they were able to find a company that lobbied vigorously for passage of legislation, and then, after its passage, gave both major political parties large contributions directed through what the report described as “shadowy corporate affiliates with generic names that do not readily appear to have anything to do with the company.”

Dick Dadey, the executive director of Citizens Union<;, a government watchdog group, said: “We all know that corruption takes place in Albany. But this was a pretty specific accounting of the kinds of activity.”

The commission’s investigations are being led by Danya Perry, a former federal prosecutor in Manhattan who specialized in white-collar fraud. The commission plans to refer suspected criminal activity to law enforcement agencies.

Its report emphasized that in many cases, the inquiries were in the early stages, and that investigators had not concluded there had been criminal conduct.

The commission also expressed interest in how money influenced a tax abatement program for real estate developers, a wage law exemption for a large retailer and other “custom-tailored laws” that a particularly powerful lobbyist won for a wide-ranging group of high-paying clients.

The commission found repeated evidence that money influenced governmental action.

In one investigation, a lobbyist negotiating with a prospective client provided the client with a “fair projection of expenses” that included not only the lobbyist’s fees, but also expensive “political contributions” that the client would have to make to politicians, including the chairmen of the legislative committees that had jurisdiction over a certain bill before the Legislature.

“It’s confirmation, frankly, of what a lot of people suspect about how things work in Albany,” said Lawrence Norden, the deputy director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice<; at the New York University School of Law. “It’s confirmation that money drives policy, and everybody on the inside knows that. And while that may not be illegal, it’s corrupt.”

There were investigations that bordered on the stuff of crime dramas. The storefront that was surveilled, at an undisclosed location in New York City, was supposed to house several medical nonprofit groups, including one organization that had drawn nearly $3 million in state money from “geographically and politically diverse group of some of the state’s most powerful lawmakers.”

But the surveillance, conducted over more than three weeks, showed little activity at the building; an undercover visit found a single person working in the office. Calls to the organization were routed to voice mail, and when return calls were made, they were brief and generic.

Investigators also visited the organization’s other offices — in New York and New Jersey — and said they appeared to be private residences, not places of business.

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