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Childhood friendship put to test in public corruption case

    FILE- In this June 22, 2015, file photo, New York state Sen. John Sampson leaves federal court in the Brooklyn borough of New York after jury selection in his obstruction of justice trial. Sampson is accused of asking a friend, who was a paralegal in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Brooklyn, sneak him the names of cooperating witnesses after he came under scrutiny in a corruption probe. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)

NEW YORK >> When a once-powerful New York politician became suspicious he was the target of a corruption probe, authorities say he came up with an outlandish way to get answers: He convinced a longtime friend who worked as a paralegal to try to leak him the names of cooperating witnesses.

Prosecutors at the ongoing trial of Sen. John Sampson argue his attempt to exploit the friendship and develop a mole demonstrated the extremes to which he would go to avoid getting caught. The senator succeeded only in upending the life of paralegal Samuel Noel and severing the pair’s relationship — an outcome described by Noel while testifying for the government.

"I was totally hurt, crushed," Noel said on Thursday when asked about being confronted by investigators about his role in an attempted cover-up of an alleged embezzlement scheme.

Sampson, 50, who was re-elected last year, has pleaded not guilty to witness tampering and obstruction of justice in the latest federal trial resulting from federal prosecutors’ campaign against dirty dealing in Albany. His lawyer has denied any wrongdoing, calling it "a case about overreach and government entrapment."

Closing arguments in federal court in Brooklyn are expected next week.

Prosecutors originally charged Sampson with embezzling funds while acting as a court-appointed referee for home foreclosure proceedings in the mid-2000s. They also allege he persuaded a real estate developer to loan him nearly $200,000 to cover up the theft in exchange for political favors.

A judge in federal court in Brooklyn threw out the embezzlement charges but allowed prosecutors to proceed with an obstruction case that has relied largely on the testimony of the broker, Edul Ahmad, who pleaded guilty to mortgage fraud charges.

Ahmad told jurors earlier this week that before he began cooperating, the senator was already beginning to distrust those around him.

"One night he came to my office very late, and he told me that if he ever found out who the cooperators were, he would take them out," Ahmad said.

Jurors also have heard conversations recorded by Ahmad of an encounter with Sampson at a Queens restaurant in 2012. Ahmad testified that he told Sampson the government had subpoenaed his business documents, then showed the senator a record of the loan to him and asked what he should do with it.

"That’s a problem. … I don’t think you should show it to them," Sampson said, according to a transcript.

Noel, 47, took the witness stand on Thursday, describing how he had met Sampson while growing up in Brooklyn and struck up a friendship spanning decades. He testified that when Sampson came to him in 2011 and asked him to use his inside access as an employee at the U.S. attorney’s office to provide information about the mortgage fraud investigation, he obliged out of friendship.

"I was really concerned about his situation," he said.

He recalled checking a confidential database and coming up empty. He said he went to Sampson and told him, "John, I got nothing."

Even after Sampson learned Noel’s misdeeds were exposed and he was canned from his job, a worried Sampson still visited him at his home to ask whether he knew if the senator’s phones were tapped, the witness said. Noel told his friend he didn’t know. Sampson then assured him they would help each other get through their troubles before bidding him farewell, Noel said.

"We still gave each the ‘bro hug,’" Noel said. And even though they haven’t spoken since, he added, "I love him like a brother."

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