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Governor Andrew M. Cuomo today announced new legislation, the Public Trust Act, which would create a new class of public corruption crimes and enhance New York prosecutors’ ability to crack down on public corruption across the state.
Currently, the laws defining public corruption in New York are obsolete and far less effective than federal statutes for prosecuting individuals who commit public corruption crimes. The Public Trust Act announced by the Governor today would establish a new class of public corruption crimes and expand the current definitions of public corruption offenses to enable prosecutors to hold accountable those who violate public trust. The law would also impose tougher jail sentences on individuals that misuse public funds and permanently bar those convicted of public corruption offenses from holding any elected or civil office, lobbying, contracting, receiving state funding, or doing business with the state, directly or through an organization.
“Preventing public corruption is essential to ensuring that government works and can effectively keep the public’s trust,” Governor Cuomo said. “The Public Trust Act recognizes that crimes of public corruption should be treated more seriously than other white-collar crimes because when they break the law, they also break the public trust that the people have placed in government. When I was elected, I made a promise to New Yorkers to bring integrity back to state government and to restore the trust of the people. We have made too much progress in rebuilding this government to turn back. This legislation will continue our work to restore public trust by giving every district attorney in our state the tools they need to root out and punish all forms of public corruption at every level of government.”
The new class of Public Corruption Crimes would include the following crimes: bribing a public servant, corrupting the government, and failing to report a bribe or a bribe attempt.
I. New Crimes for Violating Public Trust
Bribery of a Public Servant: The proposed legislation would expand the current state bribery statute to give prosecutors additional tools to convict offenders. Under current state law, a prosecutor has to prove that there was a corrupt agreement or understanding between the person paying the bribe and the person receiving the bribe. This is not required under federal law and is an unduly heavy burden. Under the new Public Servant Bribery provision, a prosecutor would only have to prove that the person paying the bribe “intended” to influence the public official or that the person receiving it intended to be so influenced, bringing state law in line with the federal standard. Bribery penalties would be increased, lowering the threshold for a Class C felony from $10,000 to $5,000, the amount of money used to bribe, and to $10,000 and above for a Class B felony.
Corrupting the Government: The proposed legislation would hold accountable anyone – whether or not they are a public official – who is found to have engaged in defrauding the government. The legislation also enhances penalties for all offenders convicted of defrauding the government through the crime of Corrupting the Government. Under the new law, anybody, whether acting in concert with a public servant or not, who engages in a course of conduct to defraud a state or local government would be guilty of a crime ranging from the fourth degree (class E felony) to the first degree (class B felony), depending on the amount defrauded.
Failure to Report Public Corruption: The proposed legislation would for the first time make it a misdemeanor for any public official or employee to fail to report bribery.
II. Tough New Penalties for Misuse of Taxpayer Dollars
New Penalties for Public Corruption: The proposed legislation would create new penalties for offenses such as any kind of fraud, theft, or money laundering offense involving state or local government property. This means an offender would face a higher penalty if the act was committed against the government. The sentence would be one level higher than for the underlying offense. For example, if the underlying offense (e.g. larceny) was a class D felony, then the involvement of state or local government property would increase the sentence to the class C felony. The specific existing crimes affected are those defined by the following provisions of the Penal Law:
Increased Penalties for Official Misconduct: Under current law, Official Misconduct is a misdemeanor. The proposed legislation creates three new degrees of Official Misconduct: a Class E felony (maximum penalty 4 years), Class D felony (maximum penalty 7 years) and Class C felony (maximum penalty 15 years).
III. Lifetime Ban from Government
The new class of felony public corruption crimes would impose additional penalties, apart from jail sentences and criminal fines, including:
Fixing the Statute of Limitations: Under the proposed legislation, the same tolling or suspension of the statute of limitations of five years after leaving office will apply to both public servants and those persons acting in concert with a public servant to commit misconduct in public office. Currently, the statute of limitations for public officials is in effect for five years after they have left office, but not those acting in concert who are not themselves public officials.
Additional Tools for Prosecutors: For the first time, a witness who testifies before a grand jury investigating fraud on the government or official misconduct will receive only “use” immunity, not “transactional” immunity for statements that witness may give under oath. This means that the witness, who may or may not also be part of the criminal transaction under investigation, may still be prosecuted for his or her role if the prosecutor develops evidence other than, and independent of, the evidence given by the witness. This important tool in fighting crime conforms New York practice with federal practice in this area.
Franklin County District Attorney Derek Champagne said, “Government corruption has no place in New York State, and I commend Governor Cuomo for taking action today to put in place new, strengthened laws that will help District Attorneys statewide to crack down on those that violate the public’s trust. Prosecutors need effective, up to date tools to punish those that engage in public corruption and the Public Trust Act will be a major help in our efforts to root out illegal behavior among public officials. I thank the Governor for taking the lead with this new legislation.”