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New York proposes new laws against public corruption

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo talks about the New York Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act in Albany, New York January 15, 2013.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo talks about the New York Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act in Albany, New York January 15, 2013.

By Daniel Trotta

NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York state Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed three new laws on Tuesday aimed at stopping government corruption, after federal prosecutors brought two criminal cases against elected officials in the state last week.

Decrying a culture of political corruption in New York and describing the two recent cases as "especially brazen and arrogant behavior," Cuomo promised to introduce the so-called Public Trust Act to the state legislature.

The act would create laws to punish bribery, scheming to corrupt the government, and failure to report corruption, he told a joint news conference with several chief prosecutors from the New York City area. It would also increase penalties for violations of existing laws.

New York state has gained a special reputation for political corruption.

Since 1999, 20 state legislators in New York have been ousted because of criminal or ethical issues, according to the good government group Citizens Union. The New York Public Interest Research Group found that, since 2007, state senators have been more likely to be arrested than to lose their seats in a general election.

"There have been too many incidents for too many years," Cuomo said. "They paint a truly ugly picture of our political landscape."

Preet Bharara, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, brought the two cases last week. Cuomo thanked him, adding that he wanted to empower the state's 62 district attorneys to more easily prosecute public corruption.

As attorney general, before becoming governor, Cuomo sometimes passed corruption cases over to federal authorities because the U.S. laws were more stringent, he said.

Under the Public Trust Act, anyone convicted of a felony would be permanently barred from holding elected or civil office, serving as a lobbyist or doing business with the state.

"I want to strike while the iron is hot. A crisis is a terrible thing to waste," Cuomo said, referring to the scandals of last week.

On Thursday, New York State Assemblyman Eric Stevenson was charged with corruption on suspicion of taking more than $22,000 in bribes in exchange for official acts, and another state assemblyman was forced to resign after agreeing to cooperate with prosecutors as a secret informant.

On Tuesday, in a separate case, Democratic New York State Senator Malcolm Smith was arrested and charged with trying to buy a slot on the Republican ticket in New York City's mayoral race, in what prosecutors said was his central role in a series of bribery schemes that reflected pervasive corruption in New York politics.

Five other politicians - three Republicans and two Democrats - were also arrested and charged with collectively accepting more than $100,000 of bribes in meetings that took place in parked cars, hotel rooms and state offices, according to court papers.

Bribery of a public servant is currently illegal, but state prosecutors must prove there was a corrupt agreement between the person paying and the person receiving the bribe, said Mylan Denerstein, counsel to Cuomo. The proposed law would remove that "corrupt understanding" loophole and make it easier to prosecute, she said.

The "corrupting the government" provisions would introduce a new class of crime that would hold public officials and private citizens accountable for defrauding the government, Denerstein said.

The Public Trust Act would for the first time make it a crime for any public official or employee to fail to report bribery, Denerstein said.

(Reporting by Daniel Trotta in New York; Editing by Toni Reinhold)

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