Another top politician conviction roils Albany

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Posted: Dec 12, 2015 7:44 AM
Another top politician conviction roils Albany

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — For the second time in as many weeks, a former top New York politician was convicted on federal corruption charges, prompting calls for tougher ethics rules and threatening to further undermine citizens' trust in their state government.

A federal jury convicted former Senate Leader Dean Skelos and his son Adam on charges that the 67-year-old Long Island Republican used his position to extort payments and no-show jobs for his 33-year-old son. Skelos, who lost his legislative seat upon conviction, had resigned as the powerful leader of the Senate this spring when he was arrested. He planned to appeal.

Last week, former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Manhattan Democrat, was convicted on charges that he took $4 million in kickbacks. He also planned to appeal, but the damage to state government's already sullied reputation may prove even harder to fight.

"Albany is out of second chances," tweeted Brian Kolb, the leader of the Assembly's GOP minority, minutes after the Skelos conviction.

Skelos and Silver are the latest of more than 30 lawmakers to leave office facing criminal charges or allegations of misconduct since 2000. Yet despite a raft of options — term limits, new caps on campaign finance, limits on lawmakers' outside income — lawmakers have resisted calls for reforms.

"How many prosecutions will it take before Albany gives the people of New York the honest government they deserve?" asked U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, whose office prosecuted both men.

Several good-government groups had urged lawmakers to convene a special session this fall devoted to addressing corruption. Top lawmakers and Gov. Andrew Cuomo balked at the idea.

Several ideas have been proposed: restricting lawmakers' outside income, new limits on campaign contributions, enhanced ethics enforcement and term limits, and more. Earlier this year lawmakers passed some modest reforms including one intended to require lawmakers to disclose more about their outside income that contained broad exemptions.

"Inaction speaks louder than words," said Blair Horner, legislative director of the New York Public Interest Research Group. "Failure by Governor Cuomo to convene a special session on ethics and inaction by the legislature can only be understood as a defense of Albany's status quo."

The governor, Senate leader and Assembly Speaker are known collectively as Albany's "three men in a room," a reference to the gatherings in which the state budget and legislation is hammered out behind closed doors. Cuomo, a Democrat, earlier this year touted his close relationship with both Skelos and Silver, joking that together they were the "three amigos."

On Friday, he struck a different tone and blamed the Legislature for inaction.

"There can be no tolerance for those who use, and seek to use, public service for private gain," he said. "The convictions of former Speaker Silver and former Majority Leader Skelos should be a wake-up call for the Legislature and it must stop standing in the way of needed reforms."

Following the Silver conviction, Cuomo noted that many proposals to prevent corruption face political obstacles. He also acknowledged that stronger ethics laws wouldn't be a panacea for Albany's woes.

"I don't care how strong the law is," Cuomo said. "If a person is going to break the law, the person is going to break the law."

The latest conviction complicates the GOP's shaky control of the Senate. Republicans hold 31 of 63 seats but hold power thanks to a breakaway faction of Democrats. A special election for Skelos' former seat has not been scheduled; both parties are expected to push hard to pick up the seat.

Skelos remains eligible for a pension and retiree health benefits despite the conviction because of his years of state service. The Empire Center for Public Policy estimated his pension could exceed $95,000 annually.

The man picked to succeed Skelos this spring, Senate Leader John Flanagan, R-Long Island, vowed to work to "swiftly and completely restore the public trust" following the Skelos conviction. He offered no specific policy ideas, however.

Flanagan's Senate Republicans have voted for term limits for legislative leadership positions, but they haven't passed the Assembly. Assembly Democrats support closing a campaign finance loophole that allows large, secretive contributions from wealthy interests. That hasn't passed the Senate. Revoking the pensions of politicians convicted of corruption is popular on both sides, but the Assembly and Senate so far can't agree on the details.

Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said Friday that it's time to break the logjam.

"The choice we face is quite simple," said Schneiderman, a Democrat. "Either New Yorkers must endure more scandals, more prosecutions and the continued loss of public confidence; or we enact transformational reform."