District Attorney Thomas Zugibe is perhaps one of the most important elected officials in Rockland County. Yet many in our county are unaware of the importance of his role and the public is rarely made aware of what the D.A. is doing as much of his work has to be conducted behind the scenes.
Recently, Zugibe has talked extensively about how unemployment fraud had become rampant in New York State and how reports of Medicaid fraud had dropped dramatically because of on-line registration for benefits in which no proof of income was required. On March 17, 2015 in his role as District Attorney, Zugibe gave an update on the work of his office during the WRCR Morning Show hosted by Steve Possell. He addressed his efforts in conjunction with the FBI to find and prosecute corrupt politicians.
Our conclusion from his comments is that he appears to be warning if there are individuals in his jurisdiction who have substantial outside income, have an overly large campaign account, are using campaign accounts in ‘creative’ ways, have expenditures that are unusual, have received or given fees for no real work etc., then the FBI may come asking questions about money laundering. Given the recent resignation of Aaron Schock one might add to this list the receiving or giving gifts for political gain, receiving property at below-market values, and accepting vacations with those doing business with the government. Given some or all of the above Zugibe may be tapping phones and perhaps in three to five years, if not before, there may be an early morning knock on some doors for individuals to explain their behavior to a jury of twelve of their peers.
Here is a partial transcript of Zugibe’s comments.
Zugibe: We have an anti-corruption task force with the United States District Attorney, Preet Bharara, and the FBI. It is really the only way to do it (tackle political corruption) and it became formalized after the Malcolm Smith and the Spring Valley case with the mayor and all of them.
We had developed a target – it was a mortgage fraud case – my detectives had nailed this individual on mortgage fraud right up and down the East Coast. It was a $150 million dollar mortgage fraud case and the individual ended up turning State’s evidence cooperating with us. We brought the FBI in and that turned into the Malcolm Smith case. We worked side-by-side with the FBI and you saw what was the outcome of it.
We have a lot of experience working with the Feds. We have a joint task force with them on organized crime and you just saw a big raid that we had with organized crime figures – the highlight being the arrest of Danny Pagano. That came out of Rockland County. Our drug task force and our Federal partners work with us every day and we have a major case coming down involving prescription drugs. Again, working with our Federal partners – crime is not local anymore – it spreads way beyond our borders and we don’t want to be ham-strung.
The public corruption stuff is very difficult. It is not like the days where you simply followed the cash. You do have to follow the money but no-one is handing over bags of cash in brown paper bags. It’s done differently. I served on the Moreland Commission and everything we looked at we were frustrated. We started recognizing the fact that money was changing hands in many different ways – consulting fees, campaign contributions and expenditures.
So how do we go after it? The money is not being hidden – it is out in plain sight. For example, Sheldon Silver is on a payroll making half a million dollars in fees from a firm that has an interest in lobbying the State. That is one way how it is being done – it is not being done behind closed doors with money going into a secret bank account. It is being paid up on the surface.
Can it be prosecuted? What did the Moreland Commission do? We focused on outside income and we issued administrative subpoenas seeking the records of outside income of Silver and other legislators who had a lot of income reported. They chose to challenge us and not provide the records. We were in the middle of a very fierce subpoena battle – Silver spent over $100,000 in attorneys’ fees fighting our subpoenas.
It was at that time when we were focused on outside income that Cuomo disbanded the Moreland Commission because he said he got his budget deal and so he pulled the plug on it. Fortunately, Preet Bharara, who I worked closely with, decided to take the information we were looking for and he issued Federal Grand Jury subpoenas for the same records. What was the outcome? The outcome was the indictment of Sheldon Silver and an ongoing investigation. That all emanated from the Moreland Commission and it was very enlightening to see how it was done. It is not done with subterfuge the way you would see it in the past.
You have to carefully analyze all of the money that appears on the surface to be legitimate.
The Feds are great partners because they have a lot of resources that we don’t have. We conduct interviews, investigate and examine records jointly. You can not lie to an FBI agent – it is a Federal crime all by itself not to be honest. If someone lies to my detectives it is no offense at all. The FBI has more authority in their grand jury to investigate without giving immunity to possible targets. We tried to get the State to change that and the legislature wasn’t interested in changing that law to make it like the Feds in most other States.
So it’s been a real win for us to have them working with us because they have our resources and we have their resources. We do wiretaps that they participate with us. It’s not parochial. We look at the bigger picture and you will see on the cases coming down the pike that sometimes the Federal government conducts the indictments while other times they get prosecuted locally. So nobody is sitting there saying it is my case or it is your case. We look at whatever makes sense that will bring the best possible outcome and that is what we pursue.
The most frustrating part of the whole operation is that we have no control over the timing of it and the Feds move at a snail’s pace. There is so much going on and they get pulled from one thing to another and so the timeframe is frustrating to us. But to the FBI returning an indictment five years after confiscating records is not unusual. You know in the State system we don’t operate that way – we are able to operate quicker. We have a Statute of Limitations to contend with; on a felony it is five years. We can subpoena records and return an indictment within three years and there is no issue at all with that.
We are looking at the whole public corruption area – it is an area that is not new to us but it’s changing and there is a lot to it. The one thing that was encouraging with the Moreland Commission – and I have to give kudos to our Rockland officials and our very robust staff in Albany – we identified those who had tremendous outside income, doing tremendous fundraising, using their campaign accounts in various ways.
Every two years some politicians are running for re-election and as a result they are always out there fundraising, attending events to increase exposure, not having as much time tending to the affairs that they were elected to perform. It is the nature of the beast – it’s that intense. To put somebody in that position every two years to be running invites problems. The more we get away from that the better we will be. County Court judges have a ten year term – Supreme Court judges a fourteen year term. Why? They don’t want them to be subjected to the influences of politics. Well, we don’t want anybody to be so subjected – do we? I am not suggesting they go ten to fourteen years but two years? It becomes a big problem.
The other thing that should be seriously thought about is making them full-time with no outside income. If we have to increase their pay I would say that saves all of us money. So much money has flowed out of Albany because of the corruption that by making the job full-time, forbidding any outside income, tightening up on campaign finance law and how that money can be used, I think it would go along way. My job is full-time – I am not allowed to have outside income. The legislature has the ability to change that tomorrow but do they want to?
That is the point; that is the problem.