Bichotte says Sampson’s conviction ‘sad’

New York state Sen. John Sampson.
Associated Press / Seth Wenig

Haitian American Democratic legislator Rodneyse Bichotte has described as “sad” and “unfortunate” Friday’s conviction of Caribbean American legislator John L. Sampson.

Democratic Sen. Sampson, 50, a lawyer, who represented the 19th New York State Senatorial District in Brooklyn, was convicted of trying to thwart a U.S. federal investigation, becoming the latest New York lawmaker to face a jail sentence.

The son of a Guyanese-born father, Sampson was found guilty of three of nine charges, the most serious of which, obstructing justice, carries a maximum term of 10 years, according to the New York Times.

“It’s sad,” said Rodneyse Bichotte, the daughter of Haitian immigrants, who was elected last November to New York State’s Assembly, in a Caribbean Life interview on Saturday. She represents the 42nd Assembly District in Brooklyn.

“They’re (defense) appealing it (conviction),” she added. “We’ll see if he’s vindicated.

“It’s unfortunate that the Black elected officials who get convicted their terms (jail) are usually harsher than others (Whites) who committed similar crimes,” Bichotte continued. “It also teaches us not to take anything for granted – always have a lawyer and pay close attention to ethics rules.

“Many of our elected officials are groomed by the old ways,” she said. “It’s a habitual thing; so we have to be smart. I have to be careful in everything that I do.”

Bichotte noted that this year has been “tough” for elected officials in the State Legislature, stating that Speaker of the Assembly, Democrat Sheldon Silver, has had to step-down from the position over alleged conflict of interest violations, as he’s being investigated by U.S. federal officials.

Silver has been replaced by Carl Heastie, whose parents hail from the Bahamas.

Dean Skelos, the Republican leader of the State Senate, was also forced to demit his position over alleged ethics violations, Bichotte noted.

“It’s tough; we’re trying to get stuff (work) done, and we’re distracted by all these convictions,” she said.

Bichotte, however, said that Heastie has instituted “zero tolerance” for alleged corruption.

“A lot of us are trying to create new laws to stop corruption,” she said, pointing to new measures passed in the State Assembly to fight corruption by, among other things, stripping taxpayer-funded pensions from public officials who are convicted of corruption, increasing disclosure of legislators’ outside income to prevent conflicts of interest, and closing the loophole to reduce the influence of “big money” in politics.

Sampson, who previously served as the Democratic leader in the State Senate, was acquitted of charges carrying sentences of up to 20 years.

But he was also found guilty on two charges of making false statements. The jury in Federal District Court in Brooklyn delivered its verdict after six days of deliberations.

As a result of his felony conviction, Sampson immediately lost his seat in the New York State Legislature, according to the Times.

Sampson is the second state senator to be found guilty last week, after Thomas W. Libous, a Republican, was convicted on Wednesday and forfeited his seat.

During the three-week trial, U.S. federal prosecutors argued that Sampson had embezzled state funds when he was appointed to oversee the sales of properties in foreclosure and then covered up the embezzlement, the Times reported.

It said the embezzlement charges had been thrown out by Judge Dora L. Irizarry, who said the statute of limitations had passed. Prosecutors said on Friday that they would appeal the decision once it was officially issued.

Defense lawyers argued that the government had entrapped Sampson, stressing that one of Sampson’s former friends, Guyanese-born real estate agent Edul Ahmad, agreed to cooperate with prosecutors after Ahmad was charged with mortgage fraud.

Ahmad testified that Sampson threatened to silence anyone who was helping investigators, according to the Times.

Prosecutors played video and audio recordings of Sampson taking a check register that Ahmad indicated could be proof of the embezzlement and putting it in his jacket pocket.

But Kim O’Meally, the forewoman of the jury, said the defense’s argument that Sampson was entrapped had been persuasive.

“Ahmad was getting him to say things when he didn’t want to,” she told reporters after Friday’s conviction. “We felt that was entrapment,” adding that the jury did not find Ahmad credible.

Sam Noel, another Sampson friend, who, for 22 years, was a paralegal at the United States attorney’s office for the Eastern District of New York, was also ensnared in the investigation, according to the Times.

It said Sampson had asked Noel to look up information about Ahmad’s case and any case being pursued against Sampson.

Noel testified that he used confidential law enforcement databases to do so. But Sampson’s lawyers argued that the senator had never directly asked Noel to break the law.

It said though Noel did not find much information, he was charged with a federal crime, lost his job and described feeling betrayed by Sampson, “a man I view as my brother.”

Prosecutors said the embezzlement occurred when Sampson was a court-appointed referee for foreclosed properties in Brooklyn.

Rather than returning the surplus money from the real estate sales to the State Supreme Court, as he was supposed to do, Sampson kept about US$440,000, the Times reported.

Prosecutors said Sampson set the funds aside for his own use, including to help his unsuccessful bid in 2005 for Brooklyn district attorney.

In a proceeding last year, Sampson’s lawyers did not contest that the embezzlement occurred but said it had taken place so long ago that the statute of limitations had expired, according to the Times.

The six counts the jury acquitted Sampson of included two counts of witness tampering and one count each of conspiracy to obstruct justice, evidence tampering, concealing records and making a false statement.

U.S. federal guidelines suggest a prison sentence of “north of 10 years,” said Kelly T. Currie, the acting United States attorney for the Eastern District.

“We are going to pursue all of our legal rights in this case until Mr. Sampson is finally vindicated,” said Nathaniel H. Akerman, one of Sampson’s lawyers, adding that the jury verdict showed that, at no point, “did he ever use his office to benefit himself.”

The false statements to the FBI were in connection with Sampson’s secret ownership of a Brooklyn liquor store and about the check register.

“Today’s jury verdict reaffirms the fundamental principle that nobody is above the law,” said acting Brooklyn U.S. Attorney Kelly Currie. “At the end of the day, it was his criminal self-interest that was his undoing,”

No sentencing date was set. Sampson is among more than 24 New York elected officials arrested or convicted by authorities since 2008, reported the New York Daily News on Saturday.

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