Former New York Senate leader and son convicted on corruption charges

Skelos trial latest example of culture that earned Empire State a D- in State Integrity Investigation

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Former New York state Senate leader Dean Skelos arrives at Federal court, in New York, Friday, Dec. 11, 2015.

Richard Drew/AP

Friday was another bad day for Albany’s tarnished image, as former state Senate leader Dean G. Skelos and his son were convicted on a suite of corruption charges. The verdict came just two weeks after Sheldon Silver, the former Assembly speaker, was convicted in an unrelated federal corruption trial.

The two convictions of legislators — the latest in a long series — highlight the sleazy political culture and lax ethics and campaign finance laws that led the Empire State to earn a D- in the State Integrity Investigation, a data-driven assessment of state government accountability and transparency published last month by the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity.

Skelos, 67, the former senate leader, and his son, Adam B. Skelos, 33, were convicted in federal court in Manhattan of eight counts of conspiracy, bribery and extortion.

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who was behind both convictions, issued a statement after the verdict was read, calling for change. “The swift convictions of Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos beg an important question – how many prosecutions will it take before Albany gives the people of New York the honest government they deserve?”

The senator’s lawyer, G. Robert Gage, told reporters that “we are obviously very disappointed with the verdict,” and that the defense would “vigorously” pursue post-trial motions.

New York’s D- grade in the State Integrity Investigation reflected poor scores across most of the categories examined by the project, including legislative accountability and political financing, two issues that reared their head during the month-long trial. Skelos’ conviction — which automatically expels him from the Senate — marks the fall of two of the “three men in a room” that rule New York politics. Each year, the leaders of each house of the legislature and the governor hash out final details of the annual budget behind closed doors, a process that earned the state the worst grade in the nation in the category for budget processes from the State Integrity Investigation.

Prosecutors drew on evidence from cooperating witnesses, phone taps and emails to sketch out several schemes that they said Skelos, a Long Island Republican, used to leverage his power in order to enrich his son, winning him no-show jobs and clients that paid him some $300,000 since 2010. In exchange, the senator allegedly pushed legislation beneficial to a powerful developer and helped steer a county contract to a wastewater services firm, which had employed the younger Skelos and had financial ties to the developer.

Prosecutors said that Adam Skelos was paid nearly $200,000 by AbTech Industries, a wastewater treatment company, despite his admission — caught on a wiretap — that he “literally knew nothing about water or, you know, any of that stuff.”

The owners of Glenwood Management, an influential development firm and one of the most prolific political donors in the state, were investors in AbTech. Prosecutors said that the developer arranged for a job for the younger Skelos with AbTech in exchange for promises from the senator that he would help both companies in Albany and in his home district in Nassau County, where AbTech won a $12 million contract.

Separately, prosecutors said the senator helped the younger Skelos secure work with a medical malpractice insurer, Physicians’ Reciprocal Insurers. During the trial, Anthony Bonomo, the company’s CEO, testified that the senator had implored him to hire the son. Once on the job, Bonomo said, Adam Skelos was an absentee employee, sometimes going days without appearing in the office. Bonomo said he was scared to fire Skelos for fear of crossing his father.

None of the companies have been charged.

Throughout the trial, the defense disputed the assertion that Skelos had promised anything in return for the work given to his son, repeatedly asking witnesses whether the senator had ever explicitly promised anything. Key witnesses replied that there had not been any explicit mentions, but said that they were either fearful or at least aware of the senator’s power.

In closing arguments, lawyers for the Skeloses argued that evidence such as phone taps and emails were taken out of context and failed to prove a quid pro quo, and they looked to discredit the government’s witnesses, pointing out that two of them received immunity for testifying.

“When you scrutinize it carefully, the government’s entire theory starts to collapse and the holes in their case become glaringly obvious,” said Christopher P. Conniff, a lawyer for Adam Skelos.

The government called several witnesses to support their case against the Skeloses, including former Republican U.S. Senator Alfonse M. D’Amato, now head of the lobbying firm Park Strategies and still an influential figure in the state.

Just as it was during the Silver trial, the state’s pay-to-play culture was on display in the Skelos case, particularly in the form of the so-called “LLC loophole,” a quirk in New York campaign finance law that allows limited liability companies to contribute to politicians under the limits for individuals, which are considerably higher than those for corporations. The loophole essentially allows companies or individuals to give unlimited sums of money to politicians by creating multiple LLCs. No entity has used the loophole more than Glenwood management, which has showered politicians with millions of dollars in recent years.

Advocacy groups have repeatedly called for the loophole to be closed, including in a November press release that cited the trials and the state’s poor showing in the State Integrity Investigation.

On December 7, a group of independent Senate Democrats — who comprise a leadership coalition with the Republicans — “relaunched” a campaign to pass ethics and campaign finance changes that would ban corporate contributions, including from LLCs, and  prohibit outside income for lawmakers. The group’s leader, Sen. Jeff Klein, said in a statement that “more than ever, it is imperative that we work to rebuild the public’s trust in its government.”

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