A prominent New York state senator pleaded not guilty on Monday to embezzlement and other charges alleging he brazenly tried to sabotage a federal fraud investigation of his law practice by seeking inside information from an employee of the Brooklyn U.S. attorney's office.
Sen. John Sampson told the employee — who has since been fired — that he wanted to identify cooperators in his case so he could arrange to "take them out," prosecutors said in announcing an indictment against the former Democratic leader in the Senate.
The indictment alleges that Sampson embezzled $440,000 from escrow accounts under his supervision as a court-appointed referee for foreclosures. It says some of the funds were funneled into his losing campaign to become Brooklyn district attorney in 2005.
When an interview with the FBI last year concluded with agents accusing the senator of lying, Sampson responded, "Not everything I told you was false," prosecutors said.
The allegations "show the extreme arrogance and hubris involved in this case," U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch said at a news conference.
Sampson, 47, was released Monday on $250,000 bond after prosecutors told a judge they already offered him a plea deal that could him behind bars for a maximum of about four years if he pleads guilty to the top embezzlement count and a lesser charge in a nine-count indictment. His lawyer, Zachary Carter, refused to respond in court.
Despite the allegation involving funding for the DA's race — and another accusing Sampson of filing false Senate disclosure forms to conceal a $188,500 loan from a real estate developer — Carter insisted his case wasn't in the same category as a recent rash of other criminal cases accusing New York lawmakers of abusing their authority for personal gain or to cheat on campaign finance rules.
Carter, a former U.S. attorney in Brooklyn, told reporters outside the court that the case involved "ordinary charges" related to his private life as a lawyer, not "official corruption."
However, Gov. Andrew Cuomo immediately pointed to Sampson's arrest as reason to revive his anti-corruption proposals, which include public financing of campaigns, and the Democratic leadership removed him from his ranking positions and committee assignments.
"There will always be bad actors," Cuomo said, "but it is incumbent on us to reform the system."
FBI Assistant Director George Venizelos said in statement: "We share what may well be the concern of many New Yorkers that 'incumbent' and 'defendant' cannot be accepted as interchangeable."
Sampson's arrest on Monday morning came less than a week after prosecutors revealed that former Sen. Shirley Huntley, a Queens Democrat, made numerous secret recordings of other elected officials for several months last year in a bid for leniency in her own case. Recordings of another, unnamed state senator and two other officials yielded "evidence useful to law enforcement," prosecutors said in court papers.
The unidentified senator brokered a deal in which a businessman gave Huntley a $1,000 payment for helping him get the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to lease him more space at John F. Kennedy International Airport, according to the government papers. Prosecutors declined to comment on reports that the senator was Sampson and there were no charges brought Monday that were related the alleged bribery scheme.
Huntley is scheduled to be sentenced on Thursday after pleading guilty to mail fraud conspiracy last winter. She admitted embezzling nearly $88,000 from a state-funded nonprofit group she controlled.
Last month, state Assemblyman Nelson Castro, a Bronx Democrat, resigned after admitting that he made similar recordings of colleagues for federal investigators after they told him he would be charged with perjury in yet another corruption investigation.
His cooperation ultimately helped lead to the indictment of a fellow assemblyman from the Bronx, Eric Stevenson, who has been accused of accepting bribes in exchange for legislation that gave a competitive advantage to a business in his district. Stevenson has denied the allegations.
In another recent case, Sen. Malcolm Smith was accused of scheming with New York City Councilman Daniel Halloran, a Republican, to bribe county Republican leaders for the GOP line on this year's mayoral ballot. Both have pleaded not guilty.
Sampson was Democratic majority leader for part of a term that was marked by political gridlock. He rose to the position after Smith, in his partial term as majority leader, lost power during a time of a Republican-led coup. Huntley, Castro, Stevenson, and Smith had no real power in statewide issues or spending, but wielded more power within their own New York City districts.
In 2012, Sampson stripped Huntley of leadership positions when her indictment was announced. He did the same with then-Sen. Carl Kruger when Kruger was arrested in 2011 in a separate bribery probe. Kruger pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges and was sentenced to seven years in prison.