Like Sheldon Silver before him, Dean Skelos now has a lot of trouble on his plate. He, too, is facing federal corruption charges and, under that kind of pressure, cannot hope to perform his duties as leader of the New York State Senate. He needs to step down from his leadership post, and rank-and-file senators need to make that clear to him.
Skelos and his son, Adam, were arrested Monday on a six-count indictment. The charges include conspiracy, extortion under the color of official right, honest services wire fraud and bribe solicitation.
The senator is accused of taking official actions to benefit AbTech, an Arizona environmental company, and a prominent Long Island real estate company, Glenwood Management, as long as the companies paid his son. The companies were not charged.
If this feels like deja vu, it’s because New York went through the same thing less than four months ago, when the same prosecutor – U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara – filed felony criminal charges against Silver, then the speaker of the State Assembly. Silver, desperately and preposterously, tried to hang onto that post, and many Democrats at first enabled him in that delusion.
Now, some Senate Republicans are doing the same for Skelos. They must know that eventually he will have to give up his office, and they should be publicly urging him to do so. Over the weekend Catharine Young of Olean lent her support to Skelos, but had no comment after the charges came out. Sens. Patrick Gallivan of Elma and Michael Ranzenhofer of Amherst said they wanted to discuss the matter with colleagues, although it’s hard to see what there is to discuss.
Skelos, like Silver, is entitled to a legal presumption of innocence, but that doesn’t mean that he will be capable for the foreseeable future of the complex and high-pressure task of leading one of the state’s two legislative chambers. He shouldn’t even want to try. The federal charges will overshadow every decision he makes, in appearance if not in fact. From his perspective, nothing in his life can be more important than to resolve this matter.
These charges have been in the wind for many weeks, so they don’t come as a surprise or even a shock. That, in itself, is a depressing comment on the low expectations that millions of New Yorkers have for their state government, very likely the nation’s most corrupt. Every top office except that of attorney general has been touched by official corruption or base illegality over the past several years.
The Legislature has been pussyfooting around ethics reform, but has never fully committed to it, possibly because its leaders benefit so much from the corrupted status quo. As this latest drama plays out, senators should think long and hard over who they elevate into Skelos’ position, which he will surely come to realize is lost.
This is the moment for the Legislature to make a promise to New Yorkers that it is leaving the sordid past behind. The Assembly had that chance and it came up with Carl Heastie, who, it turns out, is benefiting from thefts committed by his mother years ago, to the continuing detriment of the Southeast Bronx Neighborhood Center, the nonprofit agency from which she embezzled nearly $200,000.
There can be no better time than now for this to stop. Skelos can stay in the Senate, at least for now, if he wants, but he needs to leave his leadership post. And then Republicans need to choose a new leader who will point them out of the ethical wilderness they have inhabited for too long.