Candidates jostle for Sampson’s seat

This June 22, 2015 file photo shows New York state Sen. John Sampson, left, as he leaves federal court after jury selection in his obstruction of justice trial, in the Brooklyn borough of New York. Sampson was convicted Friday, July 24, 2015, on charges he lied to the FBI in an attempt to obstruct a corruption investigation targeting him for embezzlement.
Associated Press / Seth Wenig, File

Even before John Sampson, a Caribbean American legislator in Brooklyn, was convicted on Friday for trying to thwart a U.S. federal investigation, a number of candidates had already begun bidding for his Brooklyn seat.

Democratic Sen. Sampson, 50, a lawyer, who represented the 19th New York State Senatorial District in Brooklyn, became 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.

Sampson is the second New York State senator convicted on U.S. federal corruption charges last week.

Former Republican deputy majority leader Thomas Libous had to vacate his seat after also being found guilty on Wednesday of lying to the FBI when it was investigating his dealings with a law firm that hired his son, according to the New York Observer.

Among potential candidates to replace Sampson are Samuel Pierre, a Haitian-born former official in the previous New York City administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and the labor union 1199 SEIU political director, Dell Smitherman, who unsuccessfully sought to unseat Sampson last year, the Observer said.

A special election is likely to be held in early November on the date of the general elections.

“Yes, I’m interested, but I haven’t made a formal announcement,” Pierre, a founder of the Haitian American Caucus and the former Brooklyn borough director in the Bloomberg administration’s community affairs unit, told reporters.

“I’m considering a run against John because I actually worked for him,” added Pierre, who last year married a Jamaican-born physician. “I worked in the district. I know what the needs are.”

Smitherman, a political director with 1199, the powerful healthcare workers’ union, did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but the Observer reported that he hopes to use his labor connections to become a “significant factor” in the race.

Two former New York City Council candidates, Sean Henry and Leon Miles, are already also gearing up for a race, according to the Observer.

But Pierre, a former Sampson staffer and member of the Thomas Jefferson Club–the borough’s most influential local Democratic organization–could bring establishment credentials to the race if he makes his bid official, according to political observers in Brooklyn.

“I have a relationship with the guy [Mr. Sampson]. I’m not gonna be one of the candidates that (who) brings up his legal issues,” Pierre said. “As much as I want to be the number one candidate, I’m more about the party than myself. We need to be united.”

Pierre was expected to meet with Smitherman to discuss the race, according to the Observer.

New York State Assemblywoman Rodneyse Bichotte, the first Haitian American to be elected to the Assembly from New York City, told Caribbean Life that Pierre, her cousin and campaign manager, is the best candidate for the race.

“I think he’s a strong contender,” said Bichotte, who represents the 42nd Assembly District in Brooklyn. “There are lots of people vying for that position (Sampson’s seat), but Sam (Samuel Pierre) has the best credentials.”

Tony Herbert, who has run for office on at least four occasions in the Prospect Heights and Brownsville sections of Brooklyn and is now a new resident of the Canarsie section Brooklyn, where Sampson’s seat is located, is another name that is being circulated by some to be considered.

Herbert is a former staffer to retired Brooklyn Congressman Ed Towns and retired New York City Councilmember Priscilla.

Herbert, who also worked for the State Senate on the Democratic Reapportionment Task Force in 2001, currently heads an advocacy organization that he started several years ago, entitled The Advocates Without Borders Network.

“I would be interested if all the components to win such an election were in place,” said Herbert, who also serves as chairman of the African American International Chamber of Commerce. “If the support is there from the Democratic Party, and we can raise enough money to get our platform out to the voters minus the special interest interference, I would truly consider the request by those who suggested I run for the seat.

Herbert disclosed that he is organizing an Exploratory Committee to determine if he should throw his hat into the race.

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 New York Times.

During the three-week trial, US 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.

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.

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”, according to the Times.

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, the Times said.

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.

US 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.

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

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