ALBANY – In the rash of Albany scandals the past 10 years, lawmakers and top state officials have been brought down by allegations or convictions of stealing, physical abuse, contract-rigging, sexual relations with interns or prostitutes and drunk driving.
But the reason for Monday’s arrest of Sen. John Sampson, who for two years was a member of Albany’s exclusive “three-men-in-a-room” club, could be a first: embezzling nearly $500,000 to help fund his campaign to be the top law enforcement official in Brooklyn.
Sampson, a Brooklyn Democrat who led the Senate during the height of the state’s fiscal crisis from 2009 to 2010, was arrested and later arraigned Monday after federal prosecutors accused him of nine counts involving embezzlement, lying to FBI agents and trying to obstruct the investigation by seeking information from a person, since fired, inside the United States Attorney’s Office in New York.
In a bizarre twist even by Albany standards, Sampson took $440,000 from escrow accounts he controlled as a court-appointed referee in foreclosure cases to help finance his losing 2005 Democratic primary run for Brooklyn district attorney, according to an indictment made public by Loretta Lynch, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District in New York. Prosecutors said he then sought $188,000 from a real estate executive, who was later convicted on fraud charges, to use the money to cover the tracks of the embezzlement.
They said Sampson sought to obstruct the probe by asking the real estate executive to withhold documents from the FBI and tried to obtain confidential information from a former administrative aide in a federal prosecutor’s office.
The indictment shows Sampson, 47, was aware of the investigation at least going back to July 2012, when FBI agents approached him outside his Brooklyn home. At the end of the interview, the agents told Sampson he had broken a federal law by lying to them in that sidewalk interview. “Not everything I told you was false,” the indictment quoted Sampson as saying.
Sampson, who was stripped of his committee assignments Monday by Democratic leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, pleaded not guilty in federal court.
Zachery Carter, his lawyer, stressed to reporters that the case against Sampson does not involve stealing public funds or misusing his public office. “The senator does not stand accused of any offenses that implicate the misuse of his office,” he said. He called them “ordinary charges” against someone who happens to be a public official. “If the president of the United States shoplifts, it is still shoplifting. It is not official corruption,” Carter said.
In the past seven years, some 30 officials, mostly state lawmakers, have left office or been sanctioned for cases ranging from bribery to theft to having sexual relations with legislative interns, according to the New York Public Interest Research Group.
The latest scandal involving a state lawmaker is certain to only add momentum to various plans kicking around to try to reduce wrongdoing by state officials. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo took to a public radio show shortly after the indictment against Sampson was announced to press his own legislative package.