NEW YORK (AP) — Earlier this year, prosecutors say, a once-powerful New York lawmaker reached out to coach his adult son on the need for discretion because of an ongoing corruption scandal in Albany.
"Right now we're in dangerous times, Adam," Dean Skelos, at the time the leader of the state Senate, told his only child twice in the same phone call.
Despite the warning, Adam Skelos kept hustling for illicit income and talking about it to his father, even when he suspected investigators could be listening, prosecutors say. The result was a series of secret recordings — some crude, some sentimental, some absurd — that have become the key evidence at the pair's federal extortion trial and a window into a father's unwavering devotion to his callow son.
The audio from wiretaps and a body recorder worn by a cooperator stands in stark contrast to the dry circumstantial evidence heard at the trial in an adjoining courthouse that ended last week with the conviction on bribery charges of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.
While jurors never heard a peep out of the sphynx-like Silver, the jury in the Skelos case — as well as the defendants, sitting side by side — has listened to tape after tape capturing the defendants' conversations, which began as freewheeling but grew more cryptic as time passed and paranoia set in.
"Aaaagh! This day sucks!" Adam Skelos complained to his father on a December 2014 call after Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that a ban on hydraulic fracturing would remain in place. Prosecutors allege the decision derailed a scheme to cash in on the contentious method for extracting natural gas.
On the same call, the 33-year-old son went on to use a curse word to label Cuomo a wimp. His father promised payback by running for governor himself.
"I wish you would, dad," the son said. "I would be so proud ... if you kicked his a--."
"Yep, I'm going to do it," the elder Skelos responded. "No more, you know, buddy-buddy and all that stuff."
Skelos, 67, was arrested in May on charges that he abused his office by pressuring a major real estate developer, an environmental technology company and a medical malpractice insurer to provide more than $300,000 in fees and other benefits to Adam. In exchange, prosecutors say, the Long Island Republican gave the businesses access and supported legislation that benefited them.
The defense has argued that the tapes and other evidence show only that Dean Skelos was looking out for his son like any caring father, and that overzealous prosecutors are trying to criminalize the horse-trading that passes for normal in state politics. Closing arguments are expected next week.
Last week, jurors heard testimony from the cooperator, an executive with a water treatment company that hired Adam Skelos as a consultant as part of an alleged scheme to reward the business with favors in Albany. The executive testified how the younger Skelos would tell him "my girlfriend is really bothering me" as a coded instruction to call him back on untraceable "burner" phones.
In one recording, younger Skelos told the cooperator, "I literally know nothing about water." The calls also strayed off topic, with Skelos saying he had given his wife a puppy so "she'll find it easier to say OK" when he worked late and checked into a New York City hotel coming home to Long Island. He also complained about having to go to "a ridiculous amount of funerals lately," including those of two slain New York City police officers and that of Cuomo's father, Mario.
"I don't know if you've ever experienced this," Adam Skelos said. "Do you find that wakes or funerals people tend to get a lot of business done?"
The father-son calls focused on backroom deal-making, with the son calling Silver and Cuomo "hogs" when it comes to the state budget. He also congratulated his father for ousting a rival from a leadership position in the Senate — "I heard you left a hand print on somebody's a-- today" — and recommended he read Sun Tzu's "The Art of War" for lessons on how "you don't back off your enemy; you destroy your enemy, you know."
A conversation in January about whether the senator could steer a state contract to the water treatment company ends with the two agreeing to meet in person later in the day.
"All right," Adam Skelos said. "I love you."
"I love you, too," his father responded.