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Skelos to remain Senate leader despite his arrest

ALBANY – Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, despite federal prosecutors accusing him of sweeping corruption charges, held onto his leadership post after a more than three-hour meeting at the state Capitol Monday night.

The Long Island Republican asked for, and received, the support of his GOP colleagues to remain – at least for the time being – as the powerful Senate leader at a time when a series of critical policy matters are to be taken up before the end of session.

Sen. Kenneth LaValle, a Suffolk County Republican who spoke on behalf of the conference shortly before midnight, said there was a “strong consensus” to allow Skelos to keep his job because the group “strongly believes” in the presumption of innocence until proven guilty.

Skelos went into a closed-door conference with his GOP colleagues at the Capitol at about 8:45 p.m., a meeting that was still going on three hours later.

Skelos, flanked by four top aides, declined to comment as he walked up the two flights of stairs with a Buffalo News reporter. “I’m going to speak with my conference” is all he would say.

As he climbed the historic Million Dollar staircase, Skelos appeared confused at one point, with an aide reminding him as he stopped on the second floor that he had one more flight of stairs to go to reach the Senate.

Given the breadth of details in the 43-page criminal complaint and the overriding desire of Republicans to maintain control of the Senate in next year’s elections, none of Skelos’ colleagues could definitively answer how the Senate leader could remain as majority leader.

Before nightfall, in an Albany version of the O.J. Simpson slow-chase scene, all of Albany had been awaiting Skelos’ arrival at the Capitol following his late afternoon arraignment on six federal counts of bribery, extortion and other charges.

With each mile Skelos got closer to Albany, his support was buckling.

One of his closest personal friends in the Legislature, veteran Republican Sen. John DeFrancisco, told his hometown Syracuse newspaper Monday evening he was interested in Skelos’ job – if an opening occurs.

The odds of a new leader coming from upstate were enhanced, though far from certain, in the small and close-knit GOP conference, after Skelos, Long Island’s most potent political force, was named in a federal complaint for acting as the chief conduit to steer money from firms with downstate interests to his 32-year-old son’s bank account.

As Democrats called for Skelos to step down as majority leader, rank-and-file Republicans at first sought to keep a stiff upper lip as a day of phone calls and closed-door meetings tried to nail down a solution to the tricky political mess.

Like many Democrats did for former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, Senate Republicans grappled with how to offer kind words to a leader who has looked out for their political needs and the harsh reality of the consequences of standing too close to Albany’s latest target of federal prosecutors.

Senate Republicans, as disciplined a group as there is in Albany, privately talked of the pitfalls of continuing to prop up Skelos a year before they go before voters to maintain their razor-thin majority in the 2016 elections – a year when the presidential election is expected to boost Democratic voter turnout in this blue state.

Among the earliest Monday afternoon to insist Skelos should stay as leader was fellow Long Island Republican John Flanagan, himself on the short list of Skelos’ successors. Shortly after, though, trouble signs appeared, with Sen. John Bonacic, a Hudson Valley Republican, saying Skelos should step down; Bonacic was the first Republican several years ago to call for the resignation of former Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno after his legal troubles first surfaced.

The trickle continued. By 4 p.m. Monday, newcomer Sen. Rich Funke, a Rochester-area Republican, said it would be “very difficult” for Skelos to continue. Prosecutors say Funke’s Senate GOP rebuttal to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s State of the State in January was amended by Skelos to press for infrastructure spending hikes that they say would have benefited a firm that retained Skelos’ son, Adam. Funke called that an odd assertion since the entire GOP conference supported the statewide spending idea.

The implications for 2016 are sizable. Asked if he would want to run for re-election to a second term next year with Skelos still on the job, Funke said, “I’m not going there. I’m not going there.”

Staying silent was Sen. Catharine Young, an Olean Republican who has been mentioned as a possible Skelos successor.

The Republicans have never had a female leader in the Senate, and Young also offers an upstate address, a safe GOP seat and a proven political record of raising money for the Republicans. Importantly, with U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara looking at connections between lawmakers and their private law practices, Young is not a lawyer.

Not joining those immediately calling for Skelos to resign were Western New York State Senators Patrick Gallivan of Elma, who said he was “saddened” by the arrest, and Michael Ranzenhofer of Amherst, who said he was “disheartened.” Both said they wanted to discuss the matter with colleagues. Sen. Rob Ortt, a Niagara County Republican, did not return a call seeking comment.

As most Senate Republicans played a wait-and-see game, Senate Democrats provided a steady Skelos-should-go theme. Joining the effort was a number of Republicans, albeit no fans of Skelos. A political minority long ignored by the Senate GOP, Assembly Republicans, including Western New York’s Jane Corwin and John Ceretto, urged Skelos to step down, as did Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, who received little help from the Senate GOP in his failed 2014 gubernatorial run.

A number of veteran senators sought to offer support. “Sen. Skelos believes he’s innocent and I believe him,” said Sen. Hugh Farley, a Schenectady County Republican.

He noted the “turmoil” the Senate went through when Bruno was under federal investigation and that the former majority leader was eventually found not guilty on corruption charges.

Farley said no one was openly campaigning for Skelos’ job Monday. “I know there’s people that would like to be majority leader, but I think, by and large, there’s still support for Sen. Skelos,” Farley said.

As dinner approached, a political death watch mood took over the Capitol. Lobbyists were gone. Skelos’ aides huddled and went back and forth between meetings and a small, core group of Senate Republicans holed up in the Senate conference room.

“We’ll make a determination,” said Sen. George Amedore, an Albany-area Republican.

He would not offer his opinion on what that would be, and hours later told a Schenectady newspaper in his district that he did not know how Skelos could remain as leader.

Noticeably not commenting: Cuomo. Bharara, who brought the Skelos case, still has an open probe looking into how the Cuomo administration shut down an anti-corruption panel last year.

email: tprecious@buffnews.com