A longtime force in Putnam County politics admitted in federal court today that he was on the take.
Leibell, who resigned last week, pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and tax evasion.
Officials say Leibell had controlled the senior housing nonprofit that the extorted lawyer had done work for; they were investigating allegations that Leibell told the lawyer to kick back half the money owed him or else the senator would force the group not to pay the invoices.
He was secretly audio and videotaped in June on a Carmel street trying to urge a lawyer to lie to the grand jury.
The attorney was wearing a wire and recorded Leibell trying to get their stories straight.
"All I know is, as long as you and I are consistent, I'm fine, you're fine. There was never any cash between you and I, okay?" Leibell said, the video showed. "You and I say there was never any cash relationship. Period."
Leibell also instructed the attorney, if asked, to tell investigators he was withdrawing the money to care for his aging mother and to have on hand in case of an emergency, prosecutors claim.
Wearing a wrinkled grey suit and blue tie, he answered clearly, "guilty, your honor'' to each of the two counts.
"I deeply regret these actions," Leibell said.
On his taxes, Leibell said he "willfully did not report these payments."
Leibell is scheduled to be sentenced on March 7, 2011. He faces a maximum of 13 years in prison but sentencing guidelines call for 18 to 24 months, said Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara.
The 64-year-old Leibell had been in office since 1983, first as a state assemblyman, then in 1995 elected to state senate. Then he won the last election for Putnam County executive before resigning last week with a one-sentence letter that offered no reason for stepping down.
Bharara said the government did not direct the timing of Leibell's resignation.
"He decided to engage in a criminal coverup," Bharara said. "Senator Leibell has only himself to blame for the fact that after 28 years in public office that this conviction will be the capstone to that career."
Leibell hadn't been sworn in prior to his resigation, which leaves the post up in the air. It's unclear whether a special election will be held to fill the position or the legislature will appoint someone.
Anthony Scannapieco, Commissioner of the Putnam County Board of Elections, said he feels vindicated because they had questioned whether to put Leibell up as a candidate because of his legal issues.
"He duped the people of Putnam County into electing him.....He used the election as a bargaining chip to get a lesser sentence.''