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In the race to replace outgoing New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, things took a strange turn today. Federal officials arrested six people, including elected officials and party leaders. They say they have uncovered a wide-ranging conspiracy centered on buying a spot for State Senator Malcolm Smith, a Democrat, to be the Republican candidate for mayor. Member station WNYC's Brigid Bergin has our story.
BRIGID BERGIN, BYLINE: U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara stood between a team of investigators and two charts to detail the latest corruption charges facing New York's political leader.
PREET BHARARA: Good morning everybody.
BERGIN: As cameras snapped, Bharara channeled his inner Hollywood screenwriter, opening with a line straight out of "Jerry Maguire."
BHARARA: The charges we unseal today demonstrate once again that a show-me-the-money culture seems to pervade every level of New York government.
BERGIN: At the heart of the complaint are allegations that New York State Senator Malcolm Smith, a Democrat, tried to bribe his way to Gracie Mansion and city hall as a Republican. To do this, he enlisted the help of Republican city councilman Dan Halloran, also from Queens. Smith needed waivers from at least three of the five Republican county leaders to run as the Republican candidate. Bharara says Smith drew up the game plan.
BHARARA: And Republican Councilman Halloran essentially quarterbacked it by finding party chairmen who were wide open to receive bribes.
BERGIN: Altogether, the complaint details three different bribery schemes. In two of the cases, participants received cash payments or promises in return for supporting Smith. The Bronx party leader and Queens vice chairman both allegedly took $40,000 in cash. Halloran was allegedly paid to set up the meetings for Smith with the county chairmen. And in the third case, the mayor and deputy mayor of the tiny village of Spring Valley in suburban Rockland County both received cash and interests in a real estate project. Smith in turn promised to use his state Senate office to secure $500,000 in funding that would benefit the project.
BHARARA: You have all those people circling around and then, of course, you Malcolm in the middle.
BERGIN: Setting humor aside, Bharara said New York is facing a public corruption crisis. At press event in Buffalo, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo agreed the allegations are very serious.
GOVERNOR ANDREW CUOMO: I was the attorney general. I spent more time working on political reform and political corruption than probably any attorney general in modern political history, so I take it very seriously.
BERGIN: But Doug Muzzio, a public affairs professor at Baruch College of the City University of New York was as amused as he was astounded.
DOUG MUZZIO: Another day of, you know, total political insanity in New York.
BERGIN: What makes this scheme even stranger, Muzzio says, no political watcher he knows thinks Smith would have ever had a shot at a legitimate mayoral bid.
MUZZIO: Sometimes polls function in an alternative universe where they're somehow outside the physical laws of gravity, and gravity's brought this guy down. But, I mean, clearly, on its face, the whole the project is - it's a movie plot, but I don't know whether it's a tragedy or a farce.
BERGIN: All six defendants were arraigned this afternoon in U.S. district court. They face sentences of up to 45 years in prison if convicted on all charges. For NPR News, I'm Brigid Bergin in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.