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State Senate Republicans remain solidly behind embattled Skelos

ALBANY – Senate Republicans, in a show of political discipline, on Tuesday erected a unification circle surrounding embattled Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos in the face of an investigation of the powerful Long Island lawmaker by federal prosecutors.

In their first day back at the Capitol three weeks after passage of the state budget, Senate Republicans, in the words of one lawmaker speaking on condition of anonymity, spent only a “nanosecond” in a closed-door conference discussing Skelos’ legal situation.

“We still believe in innocent until proven guilty and let’s get some work done,” Senate Finance Chairman John DeFrancisco, a Syracuse-area Republican and one of Skelos’ closest friends in Albany, said of the majority leader.

The Skelos matter has been swirling for months, and was given new ammunition following a WNBC report in January that he was under investigation. More recently, the New York Times said a grand jury was being presented evidence about a probe involving the senator and ties he might have to employment dealings by his son.

The Senate had not been in Albany since March 31, evidenced by the many members sporting tans, and Skelos worked hard on his first day back on Tuesday to avoid reporters who were staking out the various possible entry and exit routes at his two different offices here.

Rank-and-file Senate Republicans, after a closed-door meeting with Skelos in their Capitol conference room, said nearly all of the meeting was about policy issues they want to be considered in the two months left of the 2015 session.

“We’re going to continue to focus on the issues,” Sen. Catharine Young, an Olean Republican, repeated three times in a session with a handful of reporters that lasted less than a minute.

Among those issues, lawmakers said, is how to respond to a flood of complaints by parents and teachers over the Common Core-based standardized tests being administered last week and this week in public schools across the state. Estimates are that 200,000 or more students refused to take the tests after parents opted them out of the exams.

“The conference is fully supportive of the senator and it’s just full steam ahead,” Young said of Skelos.

Sen. Patrick Gallivan, an Elma Republican, kept his response about the matter to just 23 words: “He’s indicated he will cooperate with any inquiry and there’s a lot of work to do here and that’s all I’m focused on.”

DeFrancisco said that it “seems to be the thing of the day to be investigated.” Indeed, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, whose Manhattan office has already brought cases against a number of Albany officials, including the recent, ongoing corruption case against former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, has warned Albany to “stay tuned” for more probes.

DeFrancisco said he is not worried about the Skelos investigation, but said he is “concerned” about the pressure it could put on him. “I can’t imagine being under the pressure of actually doing work in Albany and also being in a position of just wanting and see what happens because you can’t do anything else,” he said of the reports about the Skelos investigation.

Skelos last week confirmed the probe, and said he is cooperating.

Asked if he was interested in the job if Skelos is indicted and, like Silver, has to step down, DeFrancisco said, “Nothing’s going to happen and I’m not interested.”

News outlets last week reported that all Long Island senators, except Skelos, have been issued subpoenas for information about Skelos.

Asked Tuesday if he was subpoenaed, Sen. Kenneth LaValle, a Suffolk County Republican, said, “That’s a non-issue … I’m not answering.”

LaValle then offered a scolding for the media, saying, “Don’t you think we’re being a little presumptuous?”