By Joseph Spector and Jon Campbell
ALBANY,NY-- A former Senate Democratic leader embezzled more than $440,000 in a decade-long scheme to take money from the foreclosure sales of four Brooklyn properties, federal prosecutors alleged Monday.
Sen. John Sampson, D-Brooklyn, was charged with two counts of embezzlement, five counts of obstruction of justice and two counts of making false statements, prosecutors said.
Sampson was once one of the state's most powerful lawmakers and took over the Democratic conference after a leadership coup led to a month-long stalemate in 2009. He held the post until last year, and on Monday, Senate Democrats stripped him of his position on the Senate Judiciary Committee. He also agreed to no longer sit with the Senate Democrats in Albany.
He is the latest in a remarkable string of legislative leaders busted over the past month in various corruption cases. Senate leaders Joseph Bruno, a Republican from the Albany area; and New York City Democrats Pedro Espada and Malcolm Smith were all charged in scandals in recent years.
Overall, 30 state lawmakers have dealt with legal and ethical troubles since 2000. Sampson is the fourth lawmaker in the past month to be charged criminally.
"The voters of New York state rightfully expect their elected officials to represent the voters' interests, not to trade on their positions of power to line their own pockets," U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch said in a statement. "As charged in the indictment, for years, Sen. John Sampson abused his position of public trust to steal from New Yorkers suffering from home foreclosure and from the very county he was elected to represent."
Sampson led the Senate Democrats when they controlled the chamber in 2009 and 2010, succeeding Sen. Malcolm Smith, a Queens Democrat currently facing federal bribery charges of his own. He continued in the post in 2011 and 2012 when Democrats lost the majority.
Sampson's attorney Zachary Carter told reporters outside the New York City court that the charges are not based on public corruption.
He pleaded not guilty and was released on $250,000 bail.
"There was a signal sent that this was about corruption, similar to recent allegations of corruption brought against others in high-profile cases," Carter said. "To that extent, that turns out to be false."
Some lawmakers and good-government groups said Sampson's case was another indication of the need for ethics and campaign-finance reform in Albany.
"We have to get money out of politics. We have to elect better candidates into the system, and that's the responsibility of the citizens and the parties," said Barbara Bartoletti, legislative director for the state League of Women Voters.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who vowed to clean up corruption in Albany when he took office in 2011, has proposed a number of measures to limit the power of money in politics, such as public financing of campaigns and curbing the influence of minor political parties. Cuomo and legislative leaders have yet to reach an agreement.
Cuomo on Monday urged lawmakers to act.
"Yes, there will always be bad actors in government," Cuomo said on "The Capitol Pressroom," an Albany-based public radio show. "It is incumbent upon us to reform the system so we make it harder to do and we make it easier to catch people who do break the system. This gives us a moment of reform."
Sen. Thomas Libous, R-Binghamton, said public financing of political campaigns wouldn't thwart what Sampson allegedly did. In fact, Senate Republicans point to Smith's arrest as a reason against public financing. Smith is accused of bribing Republican leaders to win the GOP nomination for New York City mayor -- which if successful would have provided him public funding for his campaign.
"Give me some good recommendations on how we can stop bad people from doing bad things," Libous said.
Charges against a sitting senator were expected this week after federal prosecutors revealed last week that former Sen. Shirley Huntley, D-Queens, had been wearing a wire on their behalf. In a sentencing memorandum for Huntley, the U.S. Attorney's office in Brooklyn said conversations between Huntley and three elected officials turned up evidence for prosecutors.
Between 1998 and 2008, Sampson allegedly embezzled the money as a court-appointed referee for foreclosure proceedings conducted in Supreme Court in Brooklyn. He was elected to the Senate in 1997. Sampson is accused of trying to hinder the investigation and to cultivate an informant with the U.S. Attorney's Office to provide him information about his case.
In the indictment, Sampson is accused of trying to find who was cooperating with the authorities, saying he would arrange to "take them out."
When interviewed by the FBI outside his home in July 2012, Sampson said the reason he asked the employee at the U.S. Attorney's Office for help was because he was not "good" with computers, prosecutors said.
As the interview concluded, the FBI agents advised Sampson that he had lied to them. When asked whether he wished to revise his statement, Sampson said: "Not everything I told you was false."
If convicted, Sampson faces up to 10 years of prison for each embezzlement charge, up to 10 years of imprisonment for a charge of obstruction of justice and up to 20 years of imprisonment for each of the remaining four charges related to obstruction of justice.
He could get up to five years of imprisonment for each false-statement charge.
Sampson last year earned $34,500 as the conference leader. He was succeeded in January by Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-Yonkers, and earned $11,000 this year as ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Stewart-Cousins on Monday stripped Sampson of his post. Sampson will join Smith as Democratic senators who have been ousted from their conferences after an arrest; Smith was a member of the Independent Democratic Conference.
"These allegations are deeply disturbing. The alleged activity represents an offensive violation of the public trust for which there is no place in our government," Stewart-Cousins said in a statement.
Two days after Smith was charged last month, Assemblyman Eric Stevenson, D-Bronx, was accused of participating in his own bribery scheme.
Stevenson was busted after a colleague, Assemblyman Nelson Castro, D-Bronx, was also wearing a wire as part of a plea agreement on perjury charges. Castro resigned after federal prosecutors revealed he was an informant.
As part of that same probe into Smith, Spring Valley Mayor Noramie Jasmin and Deputy Mayor Deputy Mayor Joseph Desmaret were charged with mail fraud.
On Friday, Assemblyman William Boyland, D-Brooklyn, was hit with another corruption charge after prosecutors alleged he used public funds directed to a non-profit to print "Team Boyland" shirts and otherwise promote himself. Boyland had also been facing separate corruption charges.
Sen. Terry Gipson, D-Poughkeepsie, said he hopes the cases will ultimately lead to a cleansing at the Capitol.
"Quite frankly, I am glad that they have been caught, and I am glad that this is happening because the sooner that we purge this group of legislators, the bad apples, the sooner we can do some serious work," Gipson said.
Senate Independent Democratic Leader Jeff Klein, D-Bronx, said it was a "sad day, not only in the Senate but in the Legislature as a whole."
"Unfortunately, when any alleged crime is committed by any legislator -- both in the Senate or Assembly, Democrat or Republican -- it reflects badly on our legislative body as a whole," Klein said. "I think we have to move quickly to achieve our legislative agenda (and) try to put it behind us as best we can."