FBI using billboards in fight against Albany corruption
Jan. 29, 2016
ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — Each workday, thousands of state workers commute from their suburban neighborhoods to the many state buildings scattered throughout New York's capital city. Based on Albany's remarkable penchant for corruption, odds are that a few of them have a story the feds would like to hear.
That's where the big signs on the highway come in.
Authorities have turned to using digital billboards along the interstate to urge citizens to report crooked politicians, dirty bureaucrats and other bad actors, the latest indication of just how big a problem political corruption has become in Albany.
The signs, which went up earlier this year, are emblazoned with the words "REPORT CORRUPTION," all in capital letters, above the number for a telephone tip line and FBI website. They went up only weeks after the Legislature's two top leaders were convicted of trying to cash in on their positions.
The idea came from the New York Public Corruption Task Force, which includes the FBI, the IRS, the state comptroller and the state attorney general.
"The public plays an integral role in helping law enforcement root out corruption," said Andrew Vale, the FBI's special agent in charge at the Albany division. "Which is why we try to make it easier to come forward and report suspected abuse."
Billboards have long been used to locate fugitives and missing children, or warn about the risks of domestic violence, drunken driving and child abuse. Their use in the fight against corruption, however, is a relatively new idea.
"We got a call from the local field office, and we worked with them to design it," said Matt Duddy, vice president and general manager in the region for Lamar Advertising, which operates the billboards and offered the space for free.
The FBI tried out anti-corruption billboards last year in Kentucky and Connecticut.
Albany, where more than 30 lawmakers have faced criminal charges or left office because of allegations of ethical misconduct, would seem an obvious choice.
Last year, former Assembly Speaker Sheldon and ex-Senate Leader Dean Skelos, R-Long Island, were convicted of corruption. Silver, a Manhattan Democrat, was found guilty of taking more than $4 million in bribes. Skelos, a Long Island Republican, was convicted of extorting payments and jobs for his son.
Authorities involved in the effort say the billboards are just one example of an increasingly creative, collaborative effort to address a problem long seen as intractable.
"By cooperating and sharing our diverse expertise and resources, we've created a strong collaboration to fight public corruption," said state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli.
Authorities won't say whether they've seen an uptick in tips since the signs went up, or whether they've led to new investigations. Evidence from other states, however, suggests the signs could yield results: the Police department in Janesville, Wisconsin, reported that calls tripled after the department started putting information about wanted suspects and anti-crime messages on billboards.
In New York, the tip line is 518-431-7200 and the website is tips.fbi.gov.