ALBANY, N.Y. – New York lawmakers are eyeing each other carefully, watching every word they say and making only half-joking suggestions that they should start every meeting with a mutual pat-down.
It’s a paranoia born of what some here see as the ultimate betrayal: Two lawmakers have gone undercover wearing recording devices as part of a growing federal corruption probe that has resulted in indictments against four lawmakers in the past month. At least a half-dozen more are known to be caught on tape.
Edgy politicians wonder who else could be wearing a wire.
“It’s created a chilling effect on the ability to have meetings,” said Sen. Kevin Parker of New York City’s Brooklyn borough. “Colleagues are being very cautious about what they are saying. There’s a lot of tension.”
Albany denizens who for decades grew comfortable talking in clubby, insular backrooms now suddenly find the tables turned because of an investigation that is piercing their inner circles.
U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who railed last month against the “casualness and cockiness” of the corruption in Albany, seemed to enjoy making lawmakers ill at ease. “If you are a corrupt official in New York,” he warned, “you have to worry that one of your colleagues is working with us.”
For six months, the FBI essentially moved into the home of Democratic Sen. Shirley Huntley of New York City after she told them she knew about corruption in Albany and described seeing bags of cash in the state Senate building elevators, her lawyer said.
At the time, Huntley had a broken foot and found it hard to get around, a good reason for chats at her house with longtime friends and political allies.
What they didn’t know was that she was in criminal trouble herself and was cooperating with the government to try to get a lenient sentence, so the visits were taped and FBI cameras with long lenses clicked away from outside.
Federal agents had also enlisted Bronx Democrat Nelson Castro before he even reached office, turning a candidate facing a perjury charge into a fully wired state assemblyman for two terms over four years.
Four lawmakers have been charged, all accused in the past month in schemes that include embezzlement and bribery, and at least a half-dozen others remain under investigation..