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Albany’s long trail of corruption reaches Legislature’s top power brokers

ALBANY – Drip, drip, drip.

That has been the scenario of corruption case after corruption case for the last decade at the Capitol.

But even for Albany, something extraordinary happened in the last few months: the arrest on corruption charges of the two leaders of the State Legislature.

These are not the embezzlement, bribery, mail fraud, theft, extortion, sexual harassment, fraud, no-show jobs, assault, racketeering or other kinds of illegal and unethical conduct that the Capitol has witnessed involving some little-known lawmakers from Brooklyn or Queens or wherever.

The arrests this week of Senate Majority Leader Dean G. Skelos and in January of then-Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver are turning upside down the once-sacred theory that such powerful political insiders are untouchable. The arrests also exposed a nerve about Albany’s highly centralized concentration of power in the hands of a handful of officials.

“We’ve kind of allowed ourselves to drive along in New York State thinking things are little sleazy but fundamentally workable. That’s almost impossible to sustain anymore,” said Michael Johnston, a Colgate University political scientist who has studied political corruption across the states.

Silver, a Manhattan Democrat, left from the speaker’s office following charges brought by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara that he used his office to enrich himself. Now, Skelos, a Long Island Republican, finds himself trying to hang on to power after federal charges were filed Monday that he used his political influence to steer private business deals to his son, Adam B. Skelos.

And on the second floor of the Capitol, the Cuomo administration is still dealing with Bharara’s investigation into the much-criticized way in which Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in 2014 agreed to shut down the work of an anti-corruption panel called the Moreland Commission, whose documents Bharara obtained for his own investigations.

Besides the public black eye to Cuomo, there are the millions of dollars that the federal probes are costing state taxpayers.

On Tuesday, for instance, State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli announced that among the recently approved contracts and payments was $115,000 to Buffalo-based Digits LLC for “digital forensic consulting services related to the federal investigation of the Moreland Commission” and $279,000 to a Manhattan law firm to for legal services related to Bharara’s Senate probe.

As is often the case in Albany, timing can be delicious.

As Skelos was turning himself in to FBI agents in Manhattan on Monday, a union representing prison guards set up a display on the ground floor of the building across the street from the Capitol that houses state legislators’ offices. The visual to make their lobbying point about the dangers of double-bunking of state inmates: a reconstructed prison cell complete with bars and two bunk beds.

Times here have gotten to the point where reporters could, if they wanted, recycle stories about corruption just by changing the names, dollar amounts and perhaps a few juicy details.

Consider this Buffalo News headline: “Key GOP senator indicted in Albany scheme to help son.”

Was it referring to Skelos?

No. That was the headline on a July 1 article about the indictment of the current Senate Deputy Majority Leader Thomas W. Libous, R-Binghamton. His trial on charges that he lied to FBI agents looking into the outside business dealings of his son – sound familiar? – is scheduled for July.

New federal emphasis

The arrest of two top legislative leaders in one legislative session is a development unlikely to be found in any other state, Johnston said.

“But it feels a little bit more like living in Louisiana at the moment,” he said of Albany’s corruption trail and the Southern state that made illegal political deal-making an art form.

What’s new in Albany is the presence of a federal prosecutor pumping the resources of his office to investigate the state, Johnston said.

“It’s not as if there’s some sudden outbreak of corruption in Albany rather than Bharara has decided the time is right and something has to be done,” Johnston said.

The state Constitution and case law put great power in the hands of a governor when it comes to crafting the state’s $150 billion budget. But he can’t get anything done without the sign-off of the leaders of the Assembly and Senate. And that, in turn, made the Assembly speaker and Senate majority leader the power fixtures they are, affording them final say over decisions that can directly affect the bottom line of everyone from real estate developers to car dealers. In other states, budget bills are actually “marked up” in public.

New York’s reputation for uncompetitive elections helps breed a voter fatigue when it comes to corruption cases, Johnston said.

“It does depend on the political culture of a state. In places like New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, if people expect politics as usual, then you need trainloads of indictments” to effect change in the operation of government, he said. “In the Midwest, where I’m from, one of these things would be enough to set off a lot of soul-searching.”

Need for ‘political will’

As happens each time an arrest of a public official is made in New York State, government watchdog groups issued calls for legal changes.

Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman said New York faces two paths: more corruption charges in the future or changes to the state law, such as tougher anti-bribery penalties and avenues for prosecution.

“The system needs to be reformed,” Schneiderman said Tuesday. “You can’t leave this many soft edges, loopholes and loose strings in the system. … It just takes political will.”

He added that “the goal is not just prosecuting more and more people in government. … Reforming the system so that misconduct doesn’t take place in the future has to be our goal.”

Senate Republicans say Skelos should keep his job because of a presumption of innocence until proven guilty. One former lawmaker wondered Tuesday how many Senate Republicans believe that about Skelos’ charges but did not go along with some calls to delay the February 2010 expulsion of former Senator Hiram Monserrate, a Queens Democrat who was convicted of a misdemeanor assault conviction involving his girlfriend. Conviction of a felony provides an automatic expulsion of a state lawmaker in New York.

Then-Senate Democratic Conference Leader John L. Sampson – who faces a trial next month on his own set of federal corruption charges – unsuccessfully asked his colleagues to delay the historic expulsion of Monserrate until his appeals process was run through.

New York, of course, has in recent years lost a governor caught up in a prostitution scandal, a former Senate Democratic leader in a corruption scandal, a former Senate GOP leader in a corruption case for which he was found not guilty years after his resignation, and a former state comptroller who was forced to resign in a plea deal for using state resources to chauffeur around his wife.

Sending a message

With the two top legislative posts and the timing of their arrests so close together, some government watchdogs believe that the cases against Silver and Skelos will send a message to lawmakers like none of the others in recent years. Moreover, both cases have a central allegation: that Silver and Skelos used their offices for economic profit, in the case of Silver, for himself and in the case of Skelos, his son.

“When Bharara said they are deadly serious about bringing these cases, I think unless the Legislature is incredibly dense, they should get the message. In the past, it wasn’t so clear about monetizing your public office for private gain,” said Blair Horner of the New York Public Research Group.

“They’re being hauled before the court for activities that people in Albany accept as the status quo. I think the U.S. attorney’s actions against both men call into question the sort of way lawmakers in Albany conduct themselves. … If you arrest both the speaker and Senate majority leader within months of each other stemming from their activities in private, that does have a chilling effect,” he added.

Still, there has been scant evidence of public backlash, even after years of corruption cases. On the minds of voters, according to public opinion polls, the importance of ethics almost always appears down the list when compared with bread-and-butter issues such as jobs and education.

“I think lawmakers firmly believe that while the public is outraged to what they see in Albany, there is no public price to pay for it,” Horner said. “At some point, Albany will hit a tipping point. Whether we’re there yet or not, I’m not sure.”