ALBANY – Twelve years of legal sins by the powerful in Albany could fill a syllabus for a two-semester law school class.
Extortion. Bribery. Hiring prostitutes. Sexually harassing staffers. Embezzlement. And on and on.
But even after the array of illegal or embarrassing incidents that earlier cost a governor and a comptroller their careers, Albany has seen nothing like the past two weeks.
Juries in separate trials convicted both former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos on a variety of corruption charges. Both were automatically, and unceremoniously, ousted from their jobs after their felony convictions.
In all, some three dozen top state officials or lawmakers over the past dozen years have either been investigated, censured, arrested, convicted, or convinced to quietly move on after being accused of crimes, violations or improprieties.
The cases stretch the spectrum: from racketeering and bribery schemes to a sham marriage to win U.S. citizenship and even tossing a cup of coffee at a staffer.
The dual convictions of Silver, a Democrat, and Skelos, a Republican – who began this year’s session in charge of the 213-member Legislature – is unprecedented even by Albany standards. The two men were elected a combined 38 times by their constituents and then elected by their colleagues every two years to hold two of the three most powerful positions in state government.
They occupied positions that are more influential than some statewide officeholders. In partnership with governors, the two men framed decisions affecting hundreds of billions of dollars in everything from how much school districts got in state aid to what favored interest got special tax treatments. Their negotiating work shaped job-creation programs, housing efforts for the poor, environmental policies, farm subsidies, hospital and nursing home reimbursement levels, property taxes, and even the benefits available to elderly, disabled and low-income people on Medicaid.
In Silver’s case, he negotiated more than $2 trillion worth of state budgets since he became speaker in 1994. Five governors have served since he took office.
Certainly, legislative leaders have succumbed to scandal in prior years.
Silver became speaker in 1994 after a stroke and then death of Saul Weprin, an affable, “caretaker-type” leader from Queens who became speaker in 1991 following the fraud conviction of then-Speaker Mel Miller from Brooklyn. Miller’s conviction was later overturned, and he became an influential Albany lobbyist.
Skelos became majority leader in 2008 when Joseph Bruno, facing a federal probe that severely compromised his negotiating abilities at the Capitol, stepped aside in advance of his eventual 2009 indictment on corruption charges.
Indeed, in the course of just six years, Democratic and Republican Senate leaders have gotten into legal trouble: Democrats Pedro Espada of the Bronx, John Sampson of Brooklyn, Malcolm Smith of Queens and Republicans Bruno of Rensselaer County and Skelos from Nassau County.
Yet, even as the list of Albany officials caught up in scandals has grown over the years, so, too, has the institutional embrace that some embattled officials can expect from fellow politicians.
In Albany, the hindsight view always proves interesting.
In 2006, then-Comptroller Alan Hevesi resigned to avoid prison time in a scandal in which he was accused of taking state money. He pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of defrauding the government. Hevesi, a former Assembly member, had a reliable defender during his troubles: Sheldon Silver.
Silver, on the day Hevesi cut his deal that forced him from office, released a statement saying that he hoped Hevesi’s “lengthy and praiseworthy career will be judged as a whole and not on one series of events.”
What they said
Officials who lost their jobs take one of three routes when crafting responses following their day of reckoning: denial, silence or acceptance.
Hevesi chose acceptance.
“I want to apologize to the people of New York State who have given me the opportunity to serve them,’’ Hevesi told reporters outside the Albany courthouse in December 2006.
Less than four years later, Hevesi would again plead guilty to a crime – this time to a pay-to-play scheme involving the big state pension system he ran as comptroller – and landed in state prison for 20 months.
Bruno was eventually acquitted after two corruption trials. Like Silver, he, too, stood up for colleagues in trouble. When then-Sen. Guy Velella, a Bronx Republican, was accused of bribery in 2002, Bruno rushed to his defense. Bruno called the probe “tainted by leaked information supposedly from confidential proceedings that was designed to inflict political damage.”
The comments were strikingly similar to those Bruno made about the federal probe against himself, which he revealed to the world at a hastily called evening press conference on Dec. 19, 2006.
Session to remember
The final hours of Bruno’s Senate leadership and the beginnings of Skelos’ reign on June 24, 2008, provide, in hindsight, their own Albany-style moments.
There were comments from then-Gov. David Paterson, who took the rare step as a governor to come to the Senate floor to praise Bruno’s leadership.
Paterson, no stranger to fighting his own ethical issues, assumed office following the resignation of Gov. Eliot Spitzer amid a prostitution scandal.
Sen. Thomas Libous, a Binghamton-area Republican, wanted to become Bruno’s successor but settled for the deputy majority leader’s post that day. This past July, Libous was convicted of lying to the FBI in a corruption probe.
There was the moment Skelos said to Bruno that night: “I can say without a doubt that Joe has been the best leader … that we’ve ever had in this chamber.’’
And there were two other noteworthy moments that night before the Senate session ended at 8:52 p.m.
Just minutes after the formal vote electing him majority leader, Skelos recalled a tender moment with his son, Adam Skelos – who was in the Senate chamber that night – on the day he was first sworn in as a senator 23 years earlier.
It was a comment that would not be lost on anyone who has read the many transcripts of damaging conversations between Skelos and his son that federal investigators captured during their investigation of the two,
“And I remember when I was first sworn in,” Skelos said. “Adam was a little kid, and I was holding him up there. And I was speaking a little too long, and he kept pushing his hand over my mouth.”
Before closing out the session that night in 2008, Skelos talked of the important work ahead for the Senate, and of the duty of lawmakers.
“Together we can make a meaningful difference in people’s lives,” he said. “And, I think we have to remember that’s why we’re elected. We’re elected to serve the people.”