Corrupting the Government: A Brief Legal Primer of New York Penal Law Section 496

Crimes involving elected and other public officials can be some of the most complex and highly charged cases in the criminal justice system. Whether the accused is a local Spring Valley, Rockland County mayor or trustee, a New York City judge, or a New York State Senator in Albany, these cases can attract the public eye (and ire) as well as the full focus of a District Attorney’s Office like no other. Generally speaking, public corruption refers to situations in which a government official demands, accepts, solicits or agrees to accept something of value in return for their influence or power. Public officials charged with public corruption crimes not only face the penalties associated with a conviction, such as state prison or probation, but also embarrassment, humiliation, the end of a career or removal from office. In fact, recent legislation can also strip them of their pensions.  Having a New York criminal defense attorney who is experience with the unique implications and political dynamics of these kinds of prosecutions, as well as the distinctive issues often presented at a trial on these charges, is essential.

Public corruption charges essentially boil down to the charge of Corrupting the Government in either the First, Second, Third or Fourth Degree, PL 496.05, PL 496.04, PL 496.03, and PL 496.02, and the enhancement of other charges being committed “as a crime of Public Corruption,” PL 496.06. The last of these charges functions as an enhancement of certain other enumerated offenses, which are Petit Larceny, PL 155.25, Grand Larceny in the Fourth Degree, PL 155.30, Grand Larceny in the Third Degree, PL  155.35  Grand Larceny in the Second Degree, PL  155.40, Grand Larceny in the First Degree, PL 155.42, Scheme to Defraud in the Second Degree, PL 190.60, and Scheme to Defraud in the First Degree, PL 190.65. Other related charges that can often accompany Corrupting the Government and Public Corruption charges are Bribery, PL 200.04, and Official Misconduct, PL 195.00. Keep in mind, each degree of Corrupting the Government is a felony ranging from a class “E” felony with a punishment of up to four years in prison to a class “B” felony with a potential sentence of twenty-five years in custody.

The charges against public officials also often rely on multiple distinct alleged instances of misconduct, which can lead to the possibility of consecutive, rather than concurrent, sentencing. This means that, very often, these charges come with the potential for extremely long prison sentences, not to mention restitution and combined fines for all distinct alleged incidents.

With regard to real-world examples of these kinds of charges, indictments and prosecutions for public corruption typically fall into one or more of five camps:

  • Extortion
  • Fraud
  • Bribery
  • Kickbacks
  • Mishandling funds

In addition to these classic examples of public corruption, these charges can also stem from alleged violations of non-Penal Law statutes and Ethics Code infractions, such as failing to abide by requirements related to financial disclosures, Public Officers Law § 73-a.

The evidence in Public Corruption cases typically boils down to what are commonly referred to as “paper cases” – cases in which most or all of the evidence amounts to bank records, ledgers, affidavits, and other documentary evidence, as opposed to the testimony of witnesses. However, in certain circumstances, witness testimony becomes key. For example, in the context of allegations for kickbacks from government contractors, the exchange of cash from contractor to elected official often boils down to the word of the contractor or another eye witness, who may have an axe to grind or may be cooperating with the prosecution in the hope of getting a favorable deal on their own criminal case. In other words, some of these cases may turn on controlled calls, wires, and other records as well as the legality of the same.

No matter what the particular circumstances of the case, it is critical that a government official charged with public corruption be represented by counsel that is well-versed in not only this unique and complex area of law, but also in the practical and real-world implications and ramifications of this kind of prosecution.

The New York criminal lawyers at Crotty Saland PC represent clients throughout New York City and the Hudson Valley. Prior to founding the law practice, both partners served as prosecutors in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office.