Yiddish Chit-Chat Tapes Force Mistrial in Sprawling New York Corruption Case

Jurors Unable To Wait for Translations of Wiretaps

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By Joseph Ax

Published June 17, 2014.
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(Reuters) — A U.S. judge declared a mistrial in the case against a New York state senator accused of trying to buy his way onto the Republican ticket in the 2013 New York City mayoral race, lawyers in the case said.

U.S. District Judge Kenneth Karas in White Plains, New York, scuttled the trial of State Senator Malcolm Smith and one of his co-defendants, Queens Republican leader Vincent Tabone, two weeks after it began. They are scheduled for retrial in January 2015.

The trial will continue for a third defendant, former city Councilman Daniel Halloran, the latest in a string of cases against legislators in the state in recent years.

The case was initially put on hold late last week after defense lawyers learned of the existence of more than 70 hours of secret recordings made by a key government informant, including more than two dozen hours recorded in Yiddish.

Prosecutors said in court filings they failed to turn over the tapes because they contain no relevant information, but lawyers for Smith and the other defendants said the tapes could include evidence to bolster their claims of entrapment. They requested the judge declare a mistrial.

Karas said he did not believe prosecutors had intentionally hidden evidence but that defense lawyers were entitled to a delay to review the tapes.

Karas said last week he would determine whether enough jurors could stay into late July to give defense lawyers time to examine the recordings. When several jurors said on Tuesday they could not serve that long, Karas declared a mistrial.

Lawyers for Halloran said they would prefer to continue with the trial. With only one defendant, the trial is expected to move more quickly, ensuring enough jurors will be able to remain until its conclusion.

Karas had previously denied motions from the three defendants to dismiss the case entirely based on the disclosure of the tapes.

Gerald Shargel, an attorney for Smith, told Reuters the circumstances required him to seek a mistrial.

“There was relevant, material information on those recordings,” he said on Tuesday.

Smith, Tabone and Halloran are charged with trying to bribe Republican officials to secure a spot on the mayoral ballot for Smith, a Democrat. Former transit chief Joseph Lhota eventually ran as the Republican nominee, losing to Democrat Bill de Blasio.

The case is one of several corruption prosecutions brought by Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara against New York politicians in recent years.

Former state Assemblyman Eric Stevenson was sentenced in May to three years in prison for taking more than $20,000 in bribes. Another assemblyman, Nelson Castro, cooperated with investigators in the Stevenson case and pleaded guilty last year to federal and state charges of perjury and other crimes.

At least 30 state legislators in Albany have faced legal or ethics problems since 2000.

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