By John Celock
For the second time this year, a top New York State legislative leader is facing federal corruption charges.
State Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) and his son, Adam, surrendered to federal officials in Manhattan Monday morning facing fraud and extortion charges of Skelos using his official position to bring money to his son. The Skelos charges come months after then Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Lower East Side) was indicted on federal corruption charges. Silver has since stepped down as speaker but remains an assemblyman.
“Public corruption is a deep seeded problem in New York State,” U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said during a news conference. “It is a problem in both chambers and on both sides of the aisle.”
Bharara charges that Skelos arranged for a development company, AbTech, to pay Adam Skelos money in exchange for favorable state legislation benefiting the company. In addition, Bharara charges that Skelos pressured officials in Nassau County to direct contracts to companies that employed his son.
Bharara charges that both Dean and Adam Skelos were aware of the investigation by federal officials, which included a wiretap on Skelos’ phone and Adam Skelos’ cell phone. Adam Skelos started using a disposable cell phone and Bharara said Monday that “the defendants grew concerned about law enforcement scrutiny including from this office.” He alleged that Adam Skelos said that it was “too dangerous and difficult to talk on the telephone like they used too.”
Bharara also alleges that Dean Skelos told his son to start canceling meetings to lobby other senators to avoid law enforcement detection.
“Dean Skelos said that ‘right now we are in dangerous times,’” Bharara said Monday.
Skelos was also accused of using his position in negotiating the state budget to push for more funds for storm water infrastructure, which could benefit a company employing his son.
Skelos’ indictment is the latest in a series of public corruption charges that has rocked Albany. In addition to the charges against Silver, Deputy Senate Majority Leader Tom Libous (R-Binghamton) is facing federal corruption charges. Silver’s arrest and subsequently being forced out by Assembly Democrats came as the Legislature was starting the annual budget process. Skelos’ charging comes as lawmakers and Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) begin the final push of the legislative session, including discussion of rent control laws and education reform.
Silver was quickly replaced by Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx).
Bharara declined to discuss both Silver and Skelos being charged within months of each other.
Skelos has said that he is innocent and has not said if he will step aside as majority leader and temporary president of the Senate. Senate Housing Committee Chairwoman Catharine Young (R-Olean), Education Committee Chairman John Flanagan (R-Northport) and Finance Committee Chairman John DeFrancisco (R-Syracuse) have been mentioned as potential Skelos’ successors.
Skelos is facing calls to step down from Senate Democrats along with Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino (R), who the GOP’s unsuccessful nominee for governor in 2014. Chemung County Sheriff Chris Moss (R), the 2014 GOP nominee for lieutenant governor, used the Skelos charges to call for term limits in state government.
Skelos has led New York Senate Republicans since 2008. Skelos was majority leader for half of 2008 and minority leader from 2009 to 2011, becoming majority leader again from 2011 to 2013. During a period of coalition governing of the Senate from 2013 to 2015, he was co-president of the Senate alongside Senate Independent Democratic Conference Leader Jeff Klein (D-Bronx). He resumed the majority leader title this past January when the GOP gained a majority in the Senate. He was also New York’s acting lieutenant governor for part of 2008.
As the Senate’s leader, Skelos is part of the famous “three men in a room” – the governor, Assembly speaker and Senate majority leader – who make the major decisions involving New York government.
Young would be the first woman to lead a legislative chamber in New York history. Flanagan would keep the Senate leadership with a Long Island senator while both DeFrancisco and Young would return the job to an Upstate lawmaker. Young’s election would also return a rural lawmaker to the governing triumvirate of New York State for the first time in seven years. Young is a former chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee.
Heastie represents an urban district in the Bronx, while Cuomo hails from suburban Westchester County. Klein, who represents a largely suburban district in the Bronx and Westchester, also attends the meetings at Skelos’ invitation.
The Skelos charges also came the same day that two former top aides to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) pled not guilty to charges related to the shutting down of lanes on the George Washington Bridge in 2013. Former Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Deputy Executive Director Bill Baroni and former gubernatorial deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly are accused of shutting down access lanes in retaliation for the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee not endorsing Christie’s 2013 reelection.
The Skelos’ charges are the latest in Bharara’s high profile campaign against corruption in New York state government. Unlike his previous public statements on the subject, including a high profile speech he gave in the wake of the Silver arrest, Bharara was low key in discussing the issue Monday. He did say though that the public should “stay tuned” for future cases.
“You should stay tuned to our cyber cases, you should stay tuned to our terrorism cases, you should stay tuned to our public corruption cases,” he said.