The U.S. Attorney who announced the most recent spate of corruption cases against New York lawmakers likened corrupt politicians to green-skinned, slug-like aliens with no concept of "integrity" or "moral rectitude."
Preet Bharara spoke this morning in front of the Citizen's Crime Commission on how the string of corruption cases against legislators nearly every level of government should concern every New Yorker.
Nothing will change, he said, unless people fundamentally reform a corrupt culture.
Bharara began his presentation to the nonprofit reform group by referencing to a book from the popular science fiction series, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which he said he read as a kid. In the book, he said, an alien species known as Vogons "are not above a little bribery and corruption in the same way the sea is not above the clouds."
"So, is Albany full of Vogons?" he asked. "Of course not."
Bharara said that there were "countless honerable and ethical and honest people" currently in elected office.
"But I don't think anyone can disagree with the conclusion that the ranks of those convicted in office have swelled to unnaceptable levels," he added.
Serving as U.S. attorney for the New York southern district since 2009, Bharara said his office has had a long and proud tradition of independence and successful public corruption investigations. His office has been involved in some of the most high-profile scandals, including the 2011 conviction of former State Sen. Carl Kruger and the recent pay-to-play accusations against Sen. Malcolm Smith and City Councilman Dan Halloran.
Bharara made sure to define his office's role and mission, and that he is not out to criminalize "ordinary politics."
"We are not trying to wag our fingers or thump our chest," he said. "Nor, quite frankly, are we even demanding that our government officials be virtous or vice-free. We are prosecutors, not morality cops."
Even so, Bharara had strong words about how convicted politicians still stand to receive pensions paid for by taxpayers, and how certain transparancy laws can be too weak for prosectutors. On both accounts, however, Bharara emphasized that he had no formal opinion.
"I'm just sayin'," he said both times.
Bharara also said that his office has added staff to its its public corruption unit, and that fellow New York law enforcement authorities, including the FBI, have equally prioritizied corruption investigations.
Bharara referred to a recent Quinnipiac poll that showed 87 percent of New Yorkers across the state saw the Legislature's corruption as either a "very" or "somewhat serious" problem. A Siena College poll out today mirrored those results, with 91 percent of those asked answering the same way, and 81 percent saying they expect more arrests in the near future.
Legislators, Bharara said, are also stakeholders in cleaning the government of its corruption scandals. He praised proposals from lawmakers on campaign contribution limts and limits to discretionary funds. He also said that the press plays a valuable role in investigatiing corrupt officials and practices.
"Rather than just covering cases that my office and others are already bringing, figure out ways to break new ground, to cover new stories," he said. "Groundbreaking corruption coverage, by the way, is not just good copy; it is a path to good government."
Bharara ended his address to the commmission with a message to residents, who he called "the best problem solvers anywhere."
"If there were ever a time for New Yorkers to show their trademark impatience with the status quo and to show it loudly," Bharara said, "it is now."