Malcolm in the Muddle

Illustration by Martin Ansin

Vincent Tabone was an obscure guy from Bayside, a lawyer for the Red ­Apple grocery company and second banana in the powerless, endlessly squabbling Queens Republican Party. Until Tabone took a meeting with a real-estate developer. Feeling nervous, or maybe guilty, Tabone allegedly insisted on patting down the other man before talking. Nice try: Tabone missed the wire the undercover FBI agent was wearing, and last week he was one of six people arrested in connection with a bribery and ballot-­rigging scheme.

Tabone’s greater mistake, though, was getting mixed up with Malcolm Smith. The Democratic state senator from south­eastern Queens has been a magnet for investigators pretty much since he first went to Albany in 2000. That Smith had dodged prosecution this long is more dumb luck than testament to the senator’s wiles or innocence. Everything Smith gets involved with seems to devolve into farce, even when falling short of outright criminality. Last week, Smith was arrested at his home before dawn, cuffed, and charged with trying to pay his way onto the Republican ballot as part of a convoluted, delusional bid to run for mayor. The plot is alleged to have involved Smith’s steering state money to a sweetheart development deal. That kind of scheme is depressingly common; the low comedy of Ballotgate is what really sets it apart. Smith is quoted in the indictment as saying that Republican leaders should stand atop the Empire State Building and declare him “better than sliced bread.” One accused middleman in the machinations is Norse-god-worshiping city councilman Dan Halloran, a Queens Republican who lobbed unsubstantiated accusations of a plowing slowdown during the 2010 blizzard.

The high point of Smith’s political career came in January 2009. He was picked as State Senate majority leader after Democrats, in the previous fall elections, had taken control of the body for the first time in 43 years. But their margin was blade-thin, 32–30, and Smith was elevated only after buying off, with committee chairmanships, three Dems who were threatening to defect. They didn’t stay bought long, however, and Smith was quickly outmaneuvered by the epically sleazy Pedro Espada Jr.; Smith helped accelerate his own downfall by twiddling with his BlackBerry during a meeting with billionaire Tom Golisano, who threw his support behind Espada and the coup plotters.

Over the years, Smith has denied all accusations of wrongdoing. It’s been hard to tell, though, whether he’s been innocent or simply not very good at pulling off the schemes he’s been associated with. “Whenever I dealt with Malcolm, I always had somebody else in the room, because I could never trust his word,” a former legislator says. “I wanted someone who could say later, ‘Yes, Malcolm, you agreed to this deal.’ ” Shortly after reaching Albany, Smith, with Congressman Gregory Meeks, set up a Queens nonprofit, New Direction Local Development Corporation, to which Smith began directing state money; the nonprofit also hired several of Smith’s aides. Federal prosecutors issued a subpoena. A related charity, created to aid victims of Hurricane Katrina, distributed only $1,392 of the $31,000 in donations it collected for relief work.

Perhaps the closest Smith had come to prosecution before last week, though, was for his ties to a group bidding for the $300 million contract to run a casino at Aqueduct Racetrack. Smith’s political godfather, former congressman Floyd Flake, had an ownership stake in the Aqueduct Entertainment Group; so did a real-estate company headed by a former business partner of Smith’s. A report on the fiasco by the state’s inspector general ripped Smith, who had risen to become president of the Senate, for both failing to recuse himself from the deal and for misleading investigators about his ­actions in advocating that the state choose AEG.

That Smith had time to get tangled in such intrigues was impressive, given his fondness for campaign-and-taxpayer-funded travel. In Palm Beach, he played golf at the elite Breakers resort; in West Palm Beach, he held a “meeting” at Big Daddy’s liquors. In China, he studied one of his pet obsessions, high-speed rail. Meanwhile, back in Albany, Smith proved himself malleable and useful yet again this winter, when his fellow Senate Democrats were on the verge of regaining control. Instead, Smith jumped ship from the mainstream group to join the Independent Democratic Conference, which teamed with Senate Republicans to share leadership—and to inflate Smith’s office budget. “Malcolm is not the brightest bulb,” an Albany insider says. “He’s no criminal mastermind, he’s more of a follower.”

Off the Record: “He’s not a calculating man who could put a scheme together. He’s about as charming and skilled as a used-car salesman.” —Albany Insider
“Malcolm is a terrible manager, and he has no scruples. That combination will get you in trouble.” —State Legislator
“Preet Bharara is going to squeeze Malcolm, and he will fold, and talk. So, this is not the end of Malcolm.” —State Democrat
Photo: Bryan Smith/ZumaPress/Newscom

His mentor, Flake, has amassed a church and real-estate empire since leaving Congress, while Smith’s prospects and career became marginal. Maybe that’s part of why instead of being chastened by his brushes with indictment, Smith seems to have become more brazen. Because there he sat, in his parked car in Rockland County, in January, talking through a goofy plan to get on the Republican ballot. Smith was warned that the deal would cost “a pretty penny.” He didn’t seem to hesitate. “But it’s worth it,” he allegedly replied. “Because you know how big a deal it is.” Though it is his alleged co-conspirator, Halloran, who contributed the signature line of this charade: “You can’t do anything without the fucking money,” Halloran told a witness cooperating with the FBI’s operation. “That’s politics.”

New York adds some other toxic elements to the mix. In the State Legislature, practically lifetime tenure combined with an absence of real responsibility are perfect petri-dish conditions for the growth of creatures like Smith and Bronx assemblyman Eric Stevenson, who was arrested last week in a separate case and charged with accepting bribes to help the developers of adult-day-care centers. Maybe the greed is abetted by boredom: Being a state legislator is a part-time job. “People have incredibly comfortable incumbencies, and so they get cocky and start looking for other things to do,” says Basil Smikle, a Democratic strategist who ran for a State Senate seat in 2010, losing to entrenched incumbent Bill ­Perkins. “The temptation becomes to get a little extra. It’s not even about the money, really.”

Tabone, Halloran, and Smith deny the current allegations. For Smith, there’s no escaping the ridicule provoked by his mayoral fantasy. But where might the senator have gotten the funny idea that a ballot waiver could be bought? Well, in 2009, running for City Hall as an independent, Michael Bloomberg gave more than $400,000 to the city’s Republican county organizations, his name appeared on the GOP line, and he won reelection. Highlighting the all-important difference between an alleged bribe and a legal gift.

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Malcolm in the Muddle