New York lawmakers are eyeing each other carefully, watching every word they say and making only half-joking suggestions that they should start every meeting with a mutual pat-down.
It’s a paranoia born of what some here see as the ultimate betrayal: Two lawmakers have gone undercover wearing recording devices as part of a growing federal corruption probe that has resulted in indictments against four lawmakers in the past month. At least a half-dozen more are known to be caught on tape.
Edgy politicians wonder who else could be wearing a wire.
“It’s created a chilling effect on the ability to have meetings,” said Sen. Kevin Parker of Brooklyn. “Colleagues are being very cautious about what they are saying. There’s a lot of tension. You almost don’t know who’s next.”
Albany denizens who for decades grew comfortable talking in clubby, insular backrooms now suddenly find the tables turned because of an investigation that is piercing their inner circles.
U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who railed last month against the “casualness and cockiness” of the corruption in Albany, seemed to enjoy making lawmakers ill at ease.
“If you are a corrupt official in New York,” he warned, “you have to worry that one of your colleagues is working with us.”
For six months, the FBI essentially moved into the red, Cape Cod-style home of Democratic Sen. Shirley Huntley of New York City after she told them she knew about corruption in Albany and described seeing bags of cash in the state Senate building elevators, her lawyer said.
At the time, Huntley had a broken foot and found it hard to get around, a good reason for chats at her house with longtime friends and political allies.
What they didn’t know was that she was in criminal trouble herself and was cooperating with the government to try to get a lenient sentence, so the visits were taped and FBI cameras with long lenses clicked away.
Federal agents had also enlisted Bronx Democrat Nelson Castro before he even reached office, turning a candidate facing a perjury charge into a fully wired state assemblyman for two terms over four years.
Using lawmakers to record their colleagues is a rare but not unheard-of tactic.
In 2010, the U.S. Justice Department used three Republican legislators in Alabama to record meetings and phone calls with gambling interests and other legislators. Federal prosecutors got four guilty pleas. And in the early 1990s in Rhode Island, a state legislator wore a wire to record former Pawtucket Mayor Brian Sarault asking for a bribe. He was eventually convicted.
One of the people Huntley recorded, Sen. John Sampson, a Senate Democratic leader from Brooklyn, pleaded not guilty this week to embezzlement charges. He was accused of saying to an unidentified associate that he would “take out” potential witnesses.
Eventually, he knew the net was drawing close.
“I can’t talk on the phone,” Sampson told an unidentified associate in November 2011, as federal authorities drew up charges against him of embezzling from foreclosures to fund his ill-fated district attorney race. “From now own, our conversation is, ‘I don’t have no contacts, you don’t know nothing.’ When we talk, that’s how we talk.”
Now, politicians back in Albany are jumpy and searching their memories to recall conversations with Huntley last summer, or over a drink with Castro.
The frustration sometimes boils over into anger at what they say is betrayal. And they worry that a sarcastic remark, a flippant wisecrack about corruption, or a thoughtless mistake caught by an FBI mic could mark them for life.
“Everyone in the Legislature does not walk around wearing a wire [to] take innocent conversations out of context, and to unfairly reduce a legislator’s life down to a five-second sound bite,” said Sen. James Sanders Jr. of Queens.
“Deliberately leading people into a crime that they would not have committed, be they legislators or private individuals, is wrong and shows no honor.”