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U.S. Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman Delivers Keynote Address at Department of Investigation Anti-Corruption Conference
New York, NY
United States
~
Friday, June 8, 2018
U.S. Attorney Berman

Good morning.  I’m honored to be here.

I have to begin by acknowledging my gratitude to our law enforcement partners for our long history of successful collaboration on important public corruption cases. 

I won’t even attempt to list all such cases.

Indeed, even if we limited the list to the truly significant, there would still be too many to mention.

But that list would surely include the CityTime prosecution, one of the largest and most brazen frauds ever committed against New York City, and a case that was only possible through the outstanding work of DOI.    

Our shared experience fighting corruption proves the old adage “none of us is as smart as all of us.”  

This is particularly true in the difficult world of public corruption prosecutions. 

The Southern District of New York, as well as me personally, are deeply in the debt of Mark, DOI, the FBI, the IGs offices and our other fellow law enforcement agencies, and to the people in this room, for their efforts in furthering this most important mission.

The theme of today’s conference is “the evolving role of corruption investigations in improving government,” and I can’t imagine a more important topic to be speaking on today. 

That is because public corruption is one of my main priorities as US Attorney.  

It is a priority because the abuse of power by people in public office threatens the very fabric of our democracy. 

It affects the trust we have in our ability to govern ourselves. 

It deters decent people from public service. 

And it violates one of the most fundamental principles of our democratic government – that nobody is above the law, no matter how powerful. 

Each and every successful public corruption prosecution sends a powerful message—not just to other corrupt officials or officials being tempted by opportunities for corruption—but most importantly, to every hardworking and law abiding person in our City and our State, that the institutions of our government are worth protecting; that prosecutors are out there trying to even the playing field, that fraud and corruption will never be tolerated by our Office as “politics as usual”; and that we all deserve better. 

Of course, we as prosecutors and law enforcement agents aren’t solely responsible for making government work better – at the end of the day, despite all the powers we have, we don’t write the laws. 

But, by doing our part, we in fact can be agents of reform.

It is these ideals, these principles, this commitment to democratic values that has fueled the incredible work done by my Office, and in particular our Public Corruption Unit. 

They have shined a bright spotlight on the dark underbelly of New York politics and government, and come away with a series of successful prosecutions, including in recent years alone:

The Speaker of the NY State Assembly and the NY Senate Majority Leader;

The Executive Deputy Secretary to Governor Cuomo;

State Senator Carl Kruger; numerous other NY State Senators and Assembly Members;

Three NY City Council Members; and two upstate mayors (Mt. Vernon and Spring Valley).   

This list is long.  And it doesn’t even include any of the City employees, executives of non-profits, and other defendants who have embezzled and defrauded the very governments they purport to serve.

Nor does it include the UN ambassadors, NYPD police officers, union officials, party leaders, correction officers and others who our Office has convicted in recent years of fraud and corruption.

The success of our public corruption cases might suggest to some that these are relatively easy cases to bring.

But as everyone in this room knows all too well, that is most definitely not the case. 

They are in fact exceedingly difficult cases to bring, and I want to take a moment to share with you my observations on the keys to successful public corruption cases. 

These keys are resources, partnerships, creativity, persistence, independence and the resourcefulness to use every tool.

Let me take a moment to speak to each.

First, resources. 

In the Southern District, we’ve been able to keep making these complicated and sensitive cases because of the number of resources that we are able to devote to this issue. 

Our public corruption unit is the biggest than it’s ever been – we have 19 Assistant United States Attorneys who have a passion and commitment to ferreting out corruption and fraud without fear or favor. 

The PC unit also has its own dedicated criminal investigators and paralegals who are instrumental in helping to make these cases. 

Second, partnerships.

As I said at the outset, it is critical for us to work hand-in-glove with our law enforcement partners.   

We’ve been able to keep making great cases because we are able to partner with the best law enforcement agencies in the world, including DOI, the FBI, numerous IGs offices and other agencies that I see here today. 

The commitment of our partners to making these cases – to following the money, to deciphering complicated paper trails, to flipping witnesses, to using the most sophisticated law enforcement tools like wire taps and email search warrants – has been absolutely critical to our ability to build these cases successfully.

Third, creativity and persistence. 

It takes every arrow in our law enforcement quiver to build these cases. 

So over the years, as these defendants have become more sophisticated, so have we.

We’ve increasingly been able to use the tools once reserved for narcotics and organized crime prosecutions to ferret out corruption, including wire taps, surveillance, informants and cooperators.  

And in the public corruption sphere in particular, email search warrants have also provided us with a gold mine of evidence against these types of defendants.

No matter how careful they are, corrupt officials can’t be totally off the grid, and they usually slip up over email and text.

There also needs to be a “never-give-up” attitude. 

We have a culture that says, go where the facts take you, and follow every dollar.

At our Office, the philosophy is to be as tenacious at the end of the case as we are in the beginning, as committed to justice when we write the last appeals brief as we were when we served the first subpoena. 

Let me give you an example of creativity and persistence. 

I can’t talk about any pending investigations or cases, but the prosecution of former New York City Comptroller John Liu’s campaign treasurer and a major fundraiser in 2013 exemplifies how our Assistants are always thinking about ways to attack corruption.

So back in late 2011-early 2012, we used a data analytics platform to analyze all the donations to City politicians that was maintained by the NYC Campaign Finance Board. 

We wanted to look for suspicious patterns that could serve as possible leads. 

We noticed in the results that a bunch of donors to John Liu’s campaign all listed the same address. 

We also noticed that these donations all benefited from NYC’s generous matching funds program – which matches small contributions by NYC residents at a $6 to $1 rate for donations up to a certain amount.

That seemed odd, so our Assistants started to dig. 

And what they found after obtaining emails, documents, and using FBI undercovers was that John Liu’s campaign treasurer and a fundraiser had been using straw donors to make donations back to Liu’s campaign in a way that took significant advantage of the City’s matching funds program. 

But there was a problem. 

There was no federal campaign finance statute that covered local elections. 

There was simply no federal election law crime to charge under these facts.

So did our Office drop it?  Nope. 

They developed another theory of the case: that this was at its heart a fraud on New York City. 

And that was something we could charge under our federal wire fraud statute.

So that’s what we did.  We charged Liu’s campaign treasurer and a major fundraiser with conspiring to defraud New York City through a straw donor scheme, and we won convictions against both of them at trial. 

Charging this kind of local corrupt conduct as a federal wire fraud may now seem obvious, but at that time, straw donor schemes had never been charged that way before. 

So that’s just one example of the creativity that allowed our Public Corruption Unit to establish new ways to tackle crimes that undermine the mission of public institutions.

The fourth key to the success of our public corruption cases is independence.

The reputation of the Southern District for over 150 years has been one of the most independent prosecutor’s office in the country. 

Our nickname – the “Sovereign District of New York” – is earned, not gifted. 

We have shown time and again that no institution or individual in our District is above the law. 

And it doesn’t matter if you are a Democrat, a Republican or something else – our defendants have come from across the political spectrum. 

You may remember a two-week period in the fall of 2015 when Southern District juries convicted the Democratic Speaker of the Assembly and the Republican Senate Majority Leader.

So because corruption is an equal opportunity offender in New York, we are equal opportunity prosecutors. 

And independence is not just something nice to have, but it is in fact absolutely integral to the legitimacy of public corruption prosecutions. 

If you are independent, the public will trust you, and people will come forward with tips and leads because they know that we will follow the evidence wherever it leads. 

If you are independent, witnesses will tell you their story of graft, bribery, and corruption, because they know that the evidence will not be buried or ignored. 

If you are independent, accomplices will agree to cooperate and help you prosecute old cases and bring new ones. 

And if you are independent, targets know to fear your prosecutions, because they know you won’t let inappropriate political considerations enter into your prosecution calculus.  

That is why independence is more than a label – it’s a critical tool to successfully prosecuting public corruption cases.  

And the last key is the resourcefulness to use all our tools.

In our Office, corruption is not something we pursue only in our public corruption unit, and we don’t only prosecute individuals for it. 

Our Office’s view is that restoring faith in government requires a multi-pronged approach that includes not only punishing bad actors individually, but also using our extensive powers to clean up institutions that affect the lives of every day New Yorkers. 

We try to affect the culture from the top. 

Now these cases don’t always involve personal enrichment to individuals – something you typically think of when think of public corruption.

But they are just as corrosive to the public’s faith in good government.

Attacking corruption and fraud from all angles is the very impetus that led to the historic consent decree that our Office reached with Rikers in 2015. 

That institution was one rife with fraud and abuse, which led to serious and inexcusable violence against some of our most vulnerable inmates. 

Our Civil Division was able to use the power of a civil consent decree to attack the problem institutionally and systemically, including by putting in a monitor to make sure that the City was complying with the terms of the settlement. 

I’m proud to say that the consent decree we negotiated has led to some significant, positive changes at Rikers, including:  

  • By October 1, 2018, the DOC will be moving 16- and 17-year olds off Rikers Island entirely under a new state law that was the direct result of our Civil Division’s findings, which led to the consent decree. 

 

  • Inmates 21 years and under will no longer be subject to punitive segregation. 

 

  • The Department of Correction is on track to complete the installation of video surveillance cameras in all housing units on Rikers Island.  Approximately 8,000 cameras have been installed. 

 

  • In addition, DOC has initiated a body-worn camera pilot for corrections officers to better capture incidents.  We think these cameras will act as major deterrents to the kinds of violence and abuse we were seeing before the settlement, and will also capture critical evidence in the case of violence.

 

  • And DOC has developed an Early Warning System to identify correction officers who repeatedly engage in excessive force so that we get these offenders out of Rikers as early as possible.

 

And, by the way, investigating corruption and abuse systematically ties in with the individual prosecutions too.  

For example, in the course of investigating the abuses at Rikers, we identified and subsequently prosecuted two guards for egregious abuses of power. 

In 2014, we successfully prosecuted a former captain at Rikers for ignoring the urgent medical needs of an inmate who had eaten a soap ball and later died as a result of it. 

Incidentally, that was one of the first—if not the first—prosecution of a guard for violating the civil rights of an inmate in a case that did not involve a physical assault. 

Above all, the Rikers resolution demonstrates the power of civil enforcement as a tool for cleaning up and hopefully restoring trust in an institution that many people had lost faith in.

It’s critical that we make sure that these institutions not only faithfully serve their own constituents, but also that they don’t succumb to a culture in which corruption by individuals is sure to flourish.

If you have been following the news, you’re aware that Rikers is far from the only municipal or quasi-municipal institution that New Yorkers have good reason to no longer trust.  

Of course, I cannot confirm or deny any pending actions, but I will say that my Office takes very seriously conduct where City institutions routinely mislead the federal government.

I know that these keys to success in public corruption cases are familiar to all of you. 

And collectively, if we embrace them, and work collectively and collaboratively, we will bring successful prosecutions, maintain our citizens’ faith in elected officials and our public institutions, and advance the cause of democracy.

There exists no more important mission.  Thank you.

Topic(s): 
Public Corruption
Updated December 12, 2019