• Transcript
  • Show Notes

In this second episode of Doing Justice, Preet Bharara’s six-part adaptation of bestselling book, Preet tells the story of former New York State Assemblyman Nelson Castro, who went undercover after being caught in a lie and helped SDNY put away a corrupt politician and his conspirators.

Check back each Wednesday to hear Preet grapple with the moral dimensions of some of the cases that inspired and challenged him during his prosecutorial career.

To listen and subscribe on Apple Podcasts, click here.

To listen and subscribe on Spotify, click here.

Click here to purchase the paperback of Doing Justice: A Prosecutor’s Thoughts on Crime, Punishment, and the Rule of Law, the bestselling book that inspired the podcast.

Doing Justice is produced in collaboration with Transmitter Media. This episode was written & produced by Shoshi Shmuluvitz. Our editor is Sara Nics and the executive producer is Gretta Cohn. The executive producer at CAFE Studios is Tamara Sepper and the chief business officer is Geoff Isenman. Meral Agish fact checked this episode. And Hannis Brown composed our original music and was our mix engineer for this series.

Preet Bharara

Until pretty recently, the New York State legislature was basically run by crooked politicians. 

Albany was rife with corruption. 

It was so bad that an ethics lawyer told lawmakers to avoid sending disclosures in the mail so that if they got caught, they wouldn’t ALSO be charged with mail fraud

It was so bad that an incumbent state senator was more likely to get arrested than to lose re-election. 

It was so bad that New York probably had more corrupt politicians than any other state in the country. 

How did it get so bad? 

Because of a political culture that accepted it… that expected it, even. 

But look — lots of New York legislators were NOT corrupt — like Assembly member Amy Paulin. Over her almost 20 years in office, she’s watched a lot of scandals unfold… 

Amy Paulin:

There were so many cases of members of the New York state legislature that were accused of, or convicted of taking bribes, doing something improper.  And it was shocking. It was shocking because each time, I would say to myself, didn’t I have any clue? 

Preet Bharara

“Didn’t I have any clue” Corruption in Albany was all around but it wasn’t so easy to spot. And I can tell you, gathering evidence of corruption is even harder

I was the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York. And during my time in office, we prosecuted a lot of corrupt officials… 

… some of them were really sophisticated criminals…  the worst actors in New York State politics. 

And then there were some other corrupt politicians… guys who were just plain sloppy… even a little ridiculous. 

Amy Paulin:

It was like so absurd, it bordered on almost humorous, if it wasn’t so tragic. 

Preet Bharara

I’m Preet Bharara and this is Doing Justice. 

Today… a story about three absurd, almost humorous, sometimes tragic corrupt politicians from the Bronx.  

First up: Nelson Castro. Castro was a nice guy… likeable, earnest. He had a knack for remembering people’s names. He said he wanted to help and he really meant it. Even as a kid, he wanted to be in politics; at 7 years old, his friends would call him “presidente.”  

In 2009, he became the first Dominican-American elected to state office from the Bronx. 

Nelson Castro (archival):

“The most important endorsement is the endorsement from my community. The folks that always supported me, the people that always come out for me and that were there, which is the most important endorsement that I can get.”

Preet Bharara

It was the era of Barack Obama and Yes We Can and it seemed like Nelson Castro was going places… but our nice guy wanted so badly to do right, that he was willing to do the wrong thing to get there. He’d go wrong not once, but twice. 

The second crooked politician I want to tell you about is Eric Stevenson.

Eric Stevenson (archival):

I’m a straight walker. I walk on that straight path and ain’t no turn me off my path because that’s my make-up.

Preet Bharara: 

He was a fixture in his community in the Bronx. But he didn’t seem quite as earnest as Castro… didn’t share his talent for remembering everyone’s name. If Castro was a nice guy, Stevenson… he’s sort of our bad guy. 

He came from a family of politicians in New York City. His father was a district leader, his grandfather was an assemblyman

Eric Stevenson (archival):

“Those who know me, know I’m a good person.” 

Preet Bharara: 

And Eric grew up in that world of New York politics; even as a kid, he was sticking political leaflets in his neighbors’ doors

Eric Stevenson (archival):

“My father and grandfather served this borough with integrity. And they raised me with integrity.” 

Preet Bharara: 

Apparently those lessons did not stick. Stevenson would become the kind of politician who could be bought — easily, it turns out, and for cheap! 

The third guy I wanna tell you about? Sigfredo Gonzalez

He was no stranger to political corruption either. Before running for office himself, he was working for a state senator who was convicted of embezzlement. Gonzalez is friendly, jokey… but also kinda shifty. 

He ran for public office in the Bronx three times and never actually won an election… but he figured out how to get a hold of political power without winning votes… 

Gonzalez would become a middle man, a broker, connecting shady businessmen with shady politicians. 

Gonzalez. Stevenson. Castro. They all may have started out with good intentions. But all of them would betray the system, all in different ways. And all of them would get caught. 

Nelson Castro (archival): 

Vota por Nelson Castro… Nelson es la vía para cambiar tu vida! 

Preet Bharara

It started in 2008, when all three of our guys – Castro, Gonzalez, and Stevenson, were running for office. Castro – our do-gooder – was the only one who was successful that year… 

He ran for a seat in the New York State Assembly, to represent a poor Dominican enclave in the Bronx. And he won — with 95 percent of the vote! 

Nelson Castro (archival): 

I represent this community because I feel it in my heart. I don’t do this because of the pay. I do this because I believe every morning that that is my job. That I have to get up in the morning and work hard for you 

But just a few days after Castro’s childhood dream came true… it began to unravel. The Bronx DA quietly told Castro he was under investigation – for election law violations and perjury.  

Michael Farkas:

I can’t say that I’ve had many elected officials come into my office seeking representation, although he certainly hasn’t been the only one. I will not name names. 

Preet Bharara:

Michael Farkas was Nelson Castro’s lawyer. 

The perjury charge was the result of a lie that turned out to be a big, big mistake. 

You see, about a year earlier, Castro put some false addresses on a petition so he could run for office. 

That’s an election violation and it can get you kicked off the ballot. It’s not necessarily a prosecutable crime. 

BUT when the election regulators asked him about it, Castro lied. And the lying? That was a bridge too far. 

Michael Farkas:

You need to understand the context because people don’t just wake up and then commit a crime and think it’s okay. It’s never that simple.

Preet Bharara: 

Farkas says that when Castro fudged those signatures on his petition, he was just doing what he saw other people in local politics doing… 

Michael Farkas:

He saw a playing field that could only be leveled by cutting corners like that and essentially put it in layman’s terms. ‘Everybody’s doing it,’ right? It’s not that big a deal. What matters is that you get in the office and you do a good job. 

Preet Bharara: 

The Bronx DA had Castro under a sealed indictment — meaning, for now, the charges were secret. 

Michael Farkas:

This is not the kind of thing where you’re really looking at jail. That’s not the reason why this is devastating. The reason why it’s devastating is, because you’re publicly humiliated, you’ll be obviously forced out of your assembly seat, and as a convicted felon, there are restrictions on what you can do for the rest of your life.

Preet Bharara: 

Castro’s career was about to be over before it ever really began. And the DA’s office had plenty of evidence to convict him. 

Michael Farkas:

But that’s not how the story went. 

He hires me. I contact the DA’s office. And we talk. That’s when, after speaking to Nelson a bit, I came up with a bit of an idea. 

Preet Bharara:

The idea? The charges would be kept secret for now. And Castro would stay in office and become an informant — basically spy on other lawmakers. He’d help the D-A catch corrupt politicians in Albany. 

But Farkas knew that if Castro were to spy on his colleagues in Albany, there would be risks. 

Michael Farkas:

First and foremost is that, the moniker of being a rat. Okay? But it’s more than that. It could be months or years. Of working secretly with the government, uh, in addition to whatever else you’re doing in your life. So it’s never a decision that somebody can make lightly.  

Preet Bharara:

But if the plan worked, it would be a win for everybody: Castro would keep his assembly seat a little bit longer… His felony charge might be reduced to a misdemeanor. And the D-A’s office would get unprecedented inside access to Albany, and maybe a shot at some high-profile convictions for corruption. 

The D-A liked the idea and Castro did too — he saw it as a way to redeem himself as a public servant. 

He started meeting with detectives every day. He told them all about what he did, who he met… All of it under total secrecy. The only people in Castro’s life who knew about it were his lawyer and maybe his wife. And he took to his double life pretty well. 

Michael Farkas:

 You know, he was a very energetic, very dedicated kind of guy, you know? And quite frankly, he was so successful as an assemblyman and so successful as a cooperator that it had to give him a sense of fulfillment. 

Preet Bharara:

Castro worked with the DA’s office for a long time. A year passed. Then another. Castro ran for reelection and won… and the D-A’s investigation continued. But even though they had unprecedented access to Albany, their efforts didn’t bear fruit. 

And then, in 2011, the Bronx D-A called me personally. He told me about Castro and suggested we partner up. My office was known for investigating and prosecuting corrupt officials. 

I signed us up to take the lead. We put prosecutor Paul Krieger on the case. 

Do you remember the first time you met Nelson Castro? 

Paul Krieger:

I think the first time I met him was in the Bronx in a parking lot, uh, in the back of a car that belonged to one of the Bronx investigators. And we were sitting in the back together.   

Preet Bharara:

Why not at an office? 

Paul Krieger:

I think there was a real concern about him being seen with anyone other than his constituents, his family, and certainly anyone who could possibly be associated with law enforcement. 

Preet Bharara:

And you look and you look a lot like a fed right? 

Paul Krieger:

Uh, I’ve been told that…I’ve also been told I looked like a Muppet, so…

Preet Bharara:

Not long after that first meeting in the parking lot, we got a lead. 

Castro was approached by a low level operative who moved in the same political circles in the Bronx. His name was Sigfredo Gonzalez. 

I told you about Gonzalez before… He’s the middle man in this story… the guy who lost an election and became a kind of low-level power broker who connected corrupt politicians with corrupt businessmen… and got his cut of the action along the way. 

By 2011 he was working with some seriously shifty guys — four Russian-born businessmen who were trying to set up an adult daycare center — a place where seniors can go to socialize, eat their meals, and get some health care. 

Opening and operating one of these businesses isn’t simple. You need regulatory approval, you need permits. 

Michael Farkas:

Really to simplify it, they wanted to grease the rail. In order to make this project go through. And the common way of doing that is to bribe a public official to push their project when the time comes, to help them speed those approvals, et cetera, et cetera. 

Preet Bharara:

Gonzalez made it pretty clear to Castro that the businessmen were willing to pay him for his help. We started recording Castro’s interactions with Gonzalez. And Paul Krieger, of course, listened to all of those recordings. One time, Gonzalez said this to Castro: 

Paul Krieger:

I already told them, meaning the Russian businessmen, what they have to do, they know they have to take care of you. I want them to give you a nice birthday gift. 

Preet Bharara:

One Friday morning in January 2012, we wired up Nelson Castro and sent him out to meet with two of the Russian businessmen… named Igor. That’s right – both of them were named Igor.   

Paul Krieger:

Tsimerman, Igor Tsimerman told Assemblyman Castro to consider this a contribution. And he handed him three manila envelopes with $12,000 in cash. After Nelson Castro got the bribe they left the meeting and Sigfredo Gonzalez immediately asked Nelson Castro for a $2,000 cut of the cash bribe.  

Preet Bharara:

As one does. 

Castro gave the rest of the money directly to law enforcement. Now we had enough evidence to charge Gonzalez and the two Igors with a serious crime. 

Paul Krieger:

The crime is, it’s really attempting to influence a public official to take an action that benefits you. 

Preet Bharara:

We could have stopped there. 

We could have charged Sigfredo Gonzalez and the Igors. We could have unsealed Nelson Castro’s indictment and forced him to leave office. 

We could have wrapped up the investigation right there… but we didn’t. 

Paul Krieger:

We thought that there was more that could be done. If these Russian businessmen were so readily willing to hand cash across the table to a sitting assemblyman, part of the thinking was who else have they paid? Who else would they be willing to pay? And it was worth at least taking some time and energy and government resources to look into that. 

Preet Bharara:

When you’re in the thick of an investigation, sometimes you pull on a thread and you just don’t know how much of the cloth is going to unravel… how many more bad guys there are to get. So we pulled the thread, starting with Gonzalez. 

We had a hunch he was up to more. We got a wiretap on his phone… And it turned out, our hunch was right. Gonzalez was moonlighting as an ambulance chaser and was regularly committing insurance fraud.

By the spring of 2012, we had a pile of evidence… enough to charge Gonzalez with bribery and fraud. Our investigators went out to meet him. 

Paul Krieger:

And they approached him with the idea of getting him to cooperate with law enforcement. And I don’t recall now exactly how they did it and what they said to him, but it wasn’t a long conversation before Sigfredo Gonzalez decided it was in his best interest to cooperate.

Preet Bharara:

He knew he was toast and his only chance at leniency was to play ball. 

Paul Krieger:

Absolutely. 

Preet Bharara:

So what did he do? 

Paul Krieger:

He started proffering with us. He started sitting with interviews. And we started to sort of try and clean him out about every aspect of wrongdoing he knew about and what kind of proactive cooperation he could offer. And we sort of zeroed in on his relationship with these Russian businessmen and the idea that they would be willing and predisposed to paying bribes to other politicians.

Preet Bharara:

But which politicians? Not surprisingly, Gonzalez knew a guy. 

Assemblyman Eric Stevenson. The other guy I told you about earlier — the one whose father and grandfather were politicians in New York… the one who’s kinda the bad guy in this story. 

Years earlier, Stevenson and Gonzalez had run for local office on the same ticket. There was even a campaign poster of the two of them together. 

Paul Krieger:

Sigfredo Gonzalez advised us that he thought that Eric Stevenson was a politician and an elected official who would be willing to accept bribes in exchange for official acts. // He didn’t come out and say, here are other examples of, of times I know of in the past where Eric Stevenson had engaged in wrongdoing. // He knew him a long time and he had a feeling about him.

Preet Bharara:

So we decided to set up a sting operation against Stevenson. 

The businessmen wanted to find another politician to help them with opening a second adult day care center, so Gonzalez floated an idea: how about Eric Stevenson? The businessmen were into it. 

So Gonzalez reached to Stevenson, to see if they could buy his help.

But would he actually take the bait? Would he accept a cash bribe in exchange for “greasing the rail”? 

Paul Krieger:

Stevenson at various points did express some reticence to accept money from the Russian businessmen. 

Preet Bharara:

We couldn’t be sure… 

And here’s the thing. When you offer someone a bribe, you don’t call it a bribe. You let them know you want something. You let them know there are funds available… support, campaign contributions. So a bribe doesn’t always look like a bribe. 

But there are two very clear distinctions between a campaign contribution and a bribe. When you get a campaign contribution, you have to report it to election regulators. And you can’t just spend the money on whatever you want, like… a family vacation or a sports car. 

We had a major break in the case in a ritzy neighborhood in the Bronx called Fieldston. 

It has rolling hills, manicured lawns, revivalist mansions. There are even a few castles with turrets and ironwork doors… which are somehow actually tasteful. 

At the edge of Fieldston, there’s a beloved local steakhouse called Jake’s. It has valet parking and a Michelin recommendation–no star though

Its stone facade is like the castles on the other side of the neighborhood. But inside, the walls are done in a 90’s style sponge paint job. There are TV screens mounted over the bar. 

And the brown carpeting looks like it’s absorbed more than its fair share of beef fat. It’s the kind of spot where you can walk in wearing sneakers and jorts and not seem out of place. 

Paul Krieger:

So what happened was at this meal in Jake’s Steakhouse the Russian businessmen tried to hand an envelope to Eric Stevenson with cash. Eric Stevenson turned around, ‘cause I think his back was to the surveillance camera in the restaurant, and pointed at the surveillance camera and basically said to them// in physical motions that he couldn’t take the money because of the camera. 

Preet Bharara:

Of course, Stevenson didn’t know that we had two investigators sitting in a car out front with cameras. And he DEFINITELY didn’t know that Gonzalez was recording him too.

Paul Krieger:

With a video camera that I think is attached to his key chain. And you can see it’s kind of blurry because they’re going downstairs and then they’re walking from a dark place into outside where it was daytime. 

You can actually see one of the Russian businessmen hand Eric Stevenson this envelope that Eric Stevenson grabs and stuffs in his pocket. And the stuffing of the pocket is captured by the video that our investigators  are taking from outside the restaurant. 

Preet Bharara:

On the video you can see one of the businessmen passing Stevenson a manila envelope. Stevenson takes it with his right hand and shoves it into his pocket. But the envelope is so big that it sticks out.. so Stevenson jams it deeper into his pocket, and covers it with his shirt

The very next day, he goes to a car dealership in New Jersey and buys himself a Jaguar

After the break, election day looms. And SDNY finds out just how low our trio of corrupt politicians will go. …

To recap: One politician — Nelson Castro — was caught lying to investigators, and then agreed to work as an undercover informant in Albany. 

Political operative Sigfredo Gonzalez was stung by Castro, and started helping SDNY build a case against another politician: Eric Stevenson. 

Election day was only eight weeks away, and Stevenson and Castro would both be up for re-election. 

SDNY had to make a decision: We could end the investigation… arrest Stevenson and the Russian businessmen… charge Gonzalez, and unseal Castro’s indictment so that he couldn’t run again.

But what if we kept the investigation going? Kept pulling the thread… There were signs that there was more going on… more bad guys to catch. But did that justify letting voters reelect one guy who had confessed to a crime, and another guy who we knew was corrupt? 

It wasn’t just a legal question, it was an ethical question… even a moral one. 

In a sense, the Nelson Castro case bothered me more than the Stevenson case. Castro had already pled guilty. Stevenson, on the other hand, was still presumed to be innocent. And presumption of innocence really matters…even though we had watched him take a bribe, the way the system works… he had a right to a fair trial. Innocent until proven guilty.

Also, if we arrested Stevenson so soon before election day… it could look like we were trying to influence the vote. 

Here’s Paul Krieger again. 

Paul Krieger:

Is it fair to unseal or charge someone who’s up for reelection in October before a November election? There’s a flip side to the argument about why you should, you know, as soon as you have enough evidence, you should unseal a case against the sitting politician or elected official.

Preet Bharara:

Whatever we did, we were going to affect the election. It was an uncomfortable position to be in. 

And there was another thing to consider… the reputation of my office, SDNY. Whenever you charge an elected official with corruption, you want a solid case. If we brought a weak case, it could damage the public’s trust in our office.

All of this is to say, when it comes to prosecuting corrupt politicians, if you take a swing, it’s best not to miss. 

We had Stevenson on tape, taking money from some businessmen. But what had he really done in return? He’d made some phone calls to help speed up the building construction. 

As unethical as it was, it wasn’t a clear abuse of power. 

We had to see how far Stevenson was really willing to go. 

What would be one of the worst things an elected official could do? … the most blatant abuse of power? 

To bring a really strong case against Stevenson, his transgression would have to be clear, undeniable. 

Eventually, somebody got an idea… to see if Stevenson would take a bribe to introduce legislation in the assembly. 

Paul Krieger:

A piece of legislation that would have put a moratorium or a ban on new daycare centers being opened to the public in the Bronx or in the whole city, actually, and would have exempted the other centers that the Russian businessmen had. 

Preet Bharara:

It would be a dream for the businessmen — it would prevent any new competition in New York City for three years

Paul Krieger wrote an outline of the bill and gave it to Gonzalez, who gave it to the Russian businessmen. They made some edits and offered Stevenson $10,000 in exchange for introducing the legislation. And Stevenson… agreed. He had the outline drafted into a bill and then he offered it in the New York State Assembly.  

Just like that, Stevenson sold a piece of legislation. His primary function as a lawmaker, gone straight to the highest bidder. 

Paul Krieger:

I was surprised that it got introduced. I was surprised that it actually was on its way to getting at least consideration by the full assembly. I thought that the legislation would be just a step too far, uh, for him to have engaged in, for any politician to have engaged in. 

Preet Bharara:

It was February 2013, time for Stevenson to collect his final payment. He was at a lawmakers convention at the Albany Hilton, and the Russians and Sigfredo Gonzalez went up to meet him. 

This would be the last piece of the puzzle: Stevenson, on tape, receiving payment in exchange for introducing legislation. Once we got this piece of evidence, we could wrap up the investigation. We could charge Stevenson and the businessmen. Castro’s indictment would be unsealed and he’d step down. 

And as for Sigfredo Gonzalez… he would have faced a very light sentence because of his cooperation… except…

Paul Krieger:

Sigfredo Gonzalez was under the instructions to basically record as much of his interactions with the Russian businessmen or Eric Stevenson as possible. 

Sigfredo Gonzalez is hanging out with the Russian businessmen in their hotel room in Albany and the Russian businessmen either brought along or secured, uh, the services of a prostitute who um, was flirting with Sigfredo Gonzales or Sigfredo Gonzalez was flirting with her. And this is all being recorded while this flirtation is going on. And you can hear the Russian businessmen sort of leave the room and you can hear some ruffling of clothing, some heavy breathing, and then the microphone, the recording just gets shut off.

Preet Bharara:

So this wasn’t a key chain video. This was just audio. 

Paul Krieger:

This was audio. There was no video of this. 

Preet Bharara:

Thank God. 

Paul Krieger:

Yeah, thank God. 

Preet Bharara:

When we asked Gonzalez about the missing tape he… wasn’t exactly forthright. 

We charged him with lying to federal investigators. And we got ready to take our shot at Stevenson. 

Around the same time, we were wrapping up another corruption investigation — a bribery scandal involving a New York State Senator. On April 2nd, 2013, that senator was arrested and we made the charges public.

Two days later, we called another press conference, to announce Eric Stevenson’s arrest and Nelson Castro’s resignation.  

Reporter (archival):

“The latest state lawmaker arrested and charged with abusing his office in the public trust is this man, Bronx Democrat State Assemblyman Eric Stevenson. 

Reporter (archival):

:Two days after Senator Malcolm Smith was busted on corruption charges, another politician is in hot water. Assemblyman Eric Stevenson has been charged with bribery and other counts.”

Preet Bharara (press conference):

Good afternoon everyone. My name is Preet Bharara and I’m the United States Attorney for the Southern District of NY. So here we go again. 

This has become something of a habit. For the second time in three days we unseal criminal charges against a sitting member of our state legislature.  New York State Assemblyman Eric Stevenson  allegedly not only helped the businesses obtain necessary permits and recruit clientele, but also in exchange for cash bribes, introduced actual legislation barring the opening of competing adult daycare centers in the city. Among other things, it is a fairly neat trick to hatch a scheme that offends core principles of both democracy and capitalism simultaneously. 

Michael Farkas:

It almost sounds like we’re near the end of the story, but we’re not.

Preet Bharara:

That’s Michael Farkas again – Nelson Castro’s lawyer. 

The whole time we were going after Stevenson, Castro was still our undercover informant in the Assembly. He was still in Albany, representing his district. Now that the investigation was over, we unsealed his indictment and Castro stepped down. But Farkas had worked out a deal with my office and the Bronx DA. In return for Castro’s cooperation, we wouldn’t prosecute him.

Michael Farkas:

All that needed to happen from that moment on was assemblyman Stevenson and his accomplices be prosecuted by the federal government. That’s it. That’s all that had to happen. And it all would’ve been over.

Preet Bharara:

But as soon as Castro resigned, his life changed completely. 

Michael Farkas:

The paparazzi began following him and staking out every place he might be for the next several months. 

Reporter (archival): 

“Castro resigning from the assembly effective Monday. Apparently part of a deal that will keep him out of prison.” 

Reporter (archival): 

“Nelson Castro who represents the Bronx, kept a secret. While serving the public, he was also serving as a mole for federal prosecutors.” 

Michael Farkas:

They staked him out at his home, at his assembly office…uh they, they made it hell on him. 

Preet Bharara: 

To make matters worse, Castro was now out of a job and had no source of income. 

Michael Farkas:

He is not an affluent person. He lives paycheck to paycheck. And he had a family to support and he pretty much overnight became destitute.

Preet Bharara: 

He desperately needed a new job but his reputation was ruined — not only because he’d committed perjury all those years ago, but because he’d been an undercover informant. 

Michael Farkas:

His friends turned on him. He became radioactive. They felt that he was a traitor, that he was a liar, that he was a dirty, slimy rat. Uh, while some of his supporters did express condolences and support in private, they told him very directly, we cannot support you in public. 

Preet Bharara: 

Castro had done a good thing by informing on his corrupt colleagues, and he was being vilified for it.

Michael Farkas:

I mean, how deep does a culture of corruption have to be, to treat someone like that when the purpose and the result of that person’s cooperation has been to actually expose bribery in the legislature, right?

Preet Bharara: 

At my office, we were preparing our case against Stevenson, Gonzalez and the Russian businessmen. 

When we’re working with informants, we always ask them not to speak to the press before trial because it can interfere with the case. We made it clear to Castro that even if he wanted to release any statements, he should run them by us first. 

But as the months wore on, Castro was running low on money and even lower on morale. 

A Spanish language TV show in the Bronx asked him for an interview. They told him he could tell his side of the story. 

Michael Farkas:

 He wanted to tell the story about why he did what he did. That he’s not the person that people are saying that he is in the press.

Preet Bharara: 

Castro wanted people to see him as the good guy, but just like when he fudged the election petition, in trying to do the right thing, he did the wrong thing. 

Michael Farkas:

And of course the government found out about it. He was so terrified when he was asked by them if he did this interview, he figured that they would never find out because it was such a small program. 

He lied about it.

Preet Bharara: 

Moments later, when Castro realized that we already knew everything, he fessed up

But by then, the damage was done. Lying to federal investigators is a crime and we felt we had to prosecute him. 

Farkas calls it the tragedy of Nelson Castro. 

Michael Farkas:

 It’s a tragedy of his own making. Prior to that fateful moment, he would have walked away from this extraordinary ordeal with no criminal conviction. He lost his office, but he could have immediately run for it again the next year. He would have won in a landslide. 

Preet Bharara:

Instead, he ended up with a felony conviction — the very thing he was trying to avoid by becoming an informant. And since then, he hasn’t returned to public life. 

Our bad guy, Eric Stevenson was an entirely different story. He pled not guilty and went to trial. He insisted he never took any money — even though we had audio, video, and photos of him doing exactly that. Despite all that evidence, a lot of Stevenson’s constituents still supported him

Paul Krieger: 

During the closing arguments, the courtroom was packed. Mr. Stevenson’s supporters filled the courtroom. 

Preet Bharara:

The jury found him guilty anyway. He served about three years in prison and got out in 2017. He still insists he didn’t take any bribes. And last year, he tried to run for his old assembly seat again!

Eric Stevenson (archival):

“All I can say now is, we’re moving forward. So all of the naysayers who said I can’t, won’t and should not win, we going to see on June 23” 

Preet Bharara:

That campaign never really got off the ground. But the fact that he ran at all after serving a prison term for corruption is… mind boggling. 

And while both Stevenson and Castro broke the law, only Stevenson actually sold a piece of legislation. Yet, Stevenson ran for office again, and Castro never did. His reputation arguably suffered more damage for being an informant, than Stevenson’s did for his corruption. 

In April 2013, when we announced not one but two large-scale corruption cases in the span of three days, it sent shock waves through Albany. 

Assembly member Amy Paulin first heard about the scandals in the legislators’ lounge in the Assembly building. She remembers…

Amy Paulin:

Just thinking they were jerks and thinking that they gave the rest of us a bad reputation. 

Preet Bharara:

She says she didn’t know Stevenson well, she just saw him around the halls. 

He didn’t have seniority, and he wasn’t very active in trying to get bills passed… except for that one time. 

As far as New York politicians go, he wasn’t the biggest fish.   

Amy Paulin:

You know, the shocking part for someone like him, and I can remember feeling this, is like, you know, how did he even convince someone, you know, that he was worth bribing? And that was true of a lot of them.

Preet Bharara:

It was true of a lot of crooked politicians. But it wasn’t true of all of them. 

When there’s so much corruption in the lower rungs of power, you can be sure there’s something rotten at the top

Soon after we charged Stevenson and the others, Governor Andrew Cuomo launched an independent commission to investigate corruption in the legislature. Cuomo prematurely shut down the commission — that’s a whole ‘nother story. But we took the commission’s files and picked up where they left off. 

And we ended up getting convictions for the two most powerful members of the New York State legislature… One was Sheldon Silver… 

Reporter (archival):

 “Sheldon Silver, the former speaker of the NY assembly, faces 7 charges of conspiracy, money laundering and extortion.”  

Preet Bharara:

… and the other was State Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos. By then, my office had such a reputation for going after crooked politicians… that we heard our targets talking about our wiretaps on our wiretaps

Adam Skelos (archival):

Adam Skelos: You know it’s just frustrating. You can’t talk normally because it’s like fucking Preet Bharara is listening to every fucking phone call. 

Preet Bharara:

Change was happening in Albany. The state legislature tweaked rules to make it harder to misuse public funds. And a new law made it so that any lawmaker who was convicted of corruption could not collect their pension. 

Amy Paulin says, all-in-all, she thinks there’s more deterrence against corruption now. But prosecutor Paul Krieger says he doesn’t expect it’ll ever disappear completely. 

Paul Krieger:

I say that more as a result of, of human nature. And I think for elected officials, um, I think the, the temptations of, of using their office to benefit themselves or their family is quite strong and, um, that lesson needs to be taught or, and relearned over and over again, unfortunately.

Preet Bharara:

Once corruption takes root, things can devolve pretty quickly. A government free of corruption isn’t a matter of course. It’s something we all have to work at, and keep working at.  Local media need to keep the public informed. Law enforcement needs to be vigilant in investigating and prosecuting corruption. Lawmakers need to report misconduct when they see it.

Amy Paulin:

The integrity of government and people’s faith in it is, it’s paramount to our democracy. And anybody who violates it is violating not just // the people they represent, but all of us. And, uh, it taints all of us.

We need to maintain the integrity of government if we’re going to maintain the integrity of our democracy.