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Commentary & Opinion

Liz Benjamin: Trouble For "Senator #1"

Liz Benjamin
YNN, Capital Tonight

Et Tu, Shirley?

Since the revelation that former Bronx Assemblyman Nelson Castro had been working as a double agent for federal prosecutors for almost the entire duration of his four years in office, the most popular political parlor game in Albany has been trying to guess who else might be wearing a wire.

Queens Assemblyman David Weprin even joked to the New York Times that it had become de rigueur upon meeting colleagues to "feel them up and down" - in a joking sort of way, of course.

Little did he know.

Last week, we learned Castro was not alone in his undercover activities. Former state Sen. Shirley Huntley, also of Queens, had also been working for the feds after discovering she would be slapped with corruption charges.

It looks like prosecutors hit pay dirt with Huntley - netting a much bigger fish than the one Castro managed to reel in (freshman Assemblyman Eric Stevenson, who is scheduled to be indicted in federal court today).

Former Minority Leader John Sampson is reportedly scheduled to turn himself in today to face corruption charges in connection with a bribery deal that the feds learned about while tapping Huntley's phone.

Court documents reveal that Huntley, who pleaded guilty to corruption charges in January, recorded meetings with nine different people, seven of whom were elected officials and two others who had previously worked as a consultant or staff member to a public official.

It turns out that Sampson is the lawmaker identified in those documents as "Senator #1," who sought help from Huntley for a businessman who was offering bribes in exchange for help to expand his business at Kennedy International Airport, which is in Huntley's district.

Sampson set up a meeting between Huntley and the businessman, and Huntley subsequently contacted airport authorities on his behalf over the next two months, receiving $1,000 for her efforts.  The money was ill spent, however, because despite the bribe, the businessman did not receive a lease for additional space from the Port Authority.

This is not the only incident involving Sampson that has caught the interest of federal investigators. They're also reportedly looking into the Brooklyn Democrat's relationship with Edul Ahmad, a Queens real estate broker whom Sampson represented as a client through his legal practice.

Ahmad pleaded guilty in federal court in October to a mortgage fraud scheme and has been the focus of a loan scandal involving Queens Rep. Gregory Meeks.

It's ironic that Huntley is the one to take Sampson down. Back in 2010, he defended her against same-sex advocates who were furious that he agreed to support her and other Democrats who voted "no" on the gay marriage bill.

At the time, Huntley was facing a primary challenge from gay-marriage supporter Lynn Nunes. Sampson gave Huntley $9,500 from his own campaign cash and tried unsuccessfully to prevent the Empire State Pride Agenda, New York's largest LGBT organization, from endorsing Nunes.

Nunes was not successful at ousting Huntley in the September primary. She was roughly 70 percent of the vote in that race.

Unlike with Castro, whom the feds allowed to stand for election three times, knowing all the while he was 1) a crook, and 2) splitting his time between representing his constituents and trying to catch fellow crooked colleagues in the act; Huntley only ran for re-election once, and was defeated in a primary by former NYC Councilman-turned-Sen. James Sanders.

It's unclear if there will be more charges stemming from Huntley's work on behalf of the US attorney's office, but most observers agree this is just the tip of the iceberg.

It's certainly bad news for the Senate Democrats, who have been trying to argue since last year's elections that they are no longer the dysfunctional and trouble-ridden conference of the past.

And it's especially bad news for those who are close to Sampson and might have something to hide. Sen. Malcolm Smith, the Queens Democrat who replaced Sampson as conference leader during the infamous 2009 coup, is battling his own corruption charges. But there are one or two others - elected officials and former Senate staffers - who must be pretty darn concerned these days. 

Liz Benjamin is host of Capital Tonight on YNN. You can follow Capital Tonight all day long at capitaltonight.com.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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