ALBANY – After the sentencing of Sheldon Silver last week and the sentencing of Dean Skelos on Thursday, there was this sighting at the State Capitol: a lobbyist covering his mouth with a hand as he talked into his cellphone.
That scene of an Albany power broker making sure his lips could not be read, like a football coach on the sidelines, has become a increasingly seen sight here since the arrests of the two political leaders last year.
It is just one depiction of the paranoia playing out these days in Albany as corruption cases continue to rage.
Lobbyists and lawmakers alike wonder, with good reason, whether the person they are talking to is wearing a wire or cooperating with prosecutors on some unknown corruption case that will rock this town ever more.
The cautionary signs were once again at play Thursday for Albany’s political players. A week after Silver, the former Assembly speaker, was sentenced to 12 years in prison for his corruption conviction, it was the Senate’s turn Thursday.
In the same Manhattan courthouse where Silver, 72, was sentenced, the 68-year-old Skelos was told he would be sent to federal prison for five years because he used the power of his office as Senate majority leader to get lucrative deals with companies with business before the state for his son, Adam Skelos, 33, who was sentenced to 6½ years for his role in the scheme.
Dean Skelos’ sentence was less than half what prosecutors had asked a federal judge to impose, but they did get their wish with the $500,000 fine imposed on him – or more than half the value of his state government pension. The father and son were jointly ordered to repay $334,000 in crime proceeds.
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The judge did not immediately rule whether the former senator can stay out of prison during his appeals process.
U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara sought to bookend the Silver and Skelos sentences. “While Silver and Skelos deserve their prison sentences, the people of New York deserve better,” Bharara said in a statement.
His next comment captured even more attention.
“These cases show – and history teaches – that the most effective corruption investigations are those that are truly independent and not in danger of either interference or premature shutdown. That will continue to be our guiding principle in exposing and punishing corruption throughout New York,” Bharara said.
Not-so-subtle jab at Cuomo
That was a not-so-subtle jab at Gov. Andrew Cuomo on two fronts. Bharara has been sharply critical of Cuomo’s decision in 2014 to shut down an anti-corruption commission at the time it had several open investigations.
The comment also comes after Cuomo two weeks ago said he was hiring a private lawyer to run an internal investigation of the Buffalo Billion economic-development program. That announcement came hours after Bharara issued a subpoena to Cuomo’s office – which left his administration reeling – for a range of information about the Buffalo Billion and other matters, including questions about possible wrongdoing by two longtime and trusted advisers to the governor.
The Skelos story is one of a person scraping through the political minefields of New York to ascend, scratching and clawing, to become one of the three most influential forces in state government. The same was true of Silver.
While Skelos might want his legacy to be about tax cuts and big increases in education aid, he will long be known on the inside as the master of Senate redistricting efforts. Skelos got his job after helping keep the Republicans in power in the face of Democratic-leaning demographics across New York. He helped run the redistricting effort for the Senate GOP as far back as 1991 in a once-a-decade process that occurs after the federal census is taken.
Over the years, he used that process to tamp down Democratic enrollment advances and, in 2002, empower Democratic voters with a newly drawn district for a GOP senator seen as a potential challenger to his own eventual rise to power in the Senate.
In 2012, he pushed the effort to add a 63rd district in the Senate in a bid to try, again, to help the Republicans have an edge over Democrats.
Today, though, Democrats in the Senate, following a recent special election to fill Skelos’ Nassau County seat, has a numerical edge of 32-31 over Republicans. The GOP lost the Skelos seat in the April 19 special contest, but they still control the chamber thanks to alliances with several breakaway Democrats.
Skelos first came to Albany in 1981 as a member of the Assembly. He was elected to the Senate in 1984 thanks, in part, to recently drawn district lines that favored a Republican. He and his son were convicted in December. Unlike the Silver case, in which the former Democratic leader from Lower Manhattan was convicted of making millions of dollars in law firm referral deals through an illegal scheme, the Skelos case revolved around approximately $330,000 steered to his son. Skelos was convicted of using his role to influence three firms – Glenwood Management, AbTech Industries and Physicians’ Reciprocal Insurers – to give his son payments via different paths, including consulting fees and a no-show job.
Evidence that prosecutors introduced for the Skelos trial captivated Albany. Wiretapped phone conversations between Skelos and his son illustrated a mix of survival politics, with the son imploring his father to stand up to a group of breakaway Democrats and self-dealing schemes intended to enrich Adam Skelos.
There was an allegation that Adam Skelos threatened physical violence against his boss in what turned out to be a no-show job with a company wanting to keep happy their employee’s powerful father in the Senate. And there was the recording of Adam letting out a high-pitched moan when fracking was banned – a move he thought would eat into his business dealings.
The people who work Albany full time – the professional lobbying corps – are mixed about the degree to which this town has changed over the last decade of scandal headlines.
Several lobbyists, who traditionally trade speak on condition of anonymity, said Albany is increasingly a nervous community, especially as they now see Bharara expanding his probe of the Buffalo Billion include looking at an array of players, including longtime advisers to Cuomo.
Still, said one lobbyist, some don’t get it.
“I still have lawmakers talk to me in this building about their fundraisers. I still see lawmakers talking to lobbyists at their fundraisers about issues they’re lobbying on,” the lobbyist said.
The Albany corruption probes underway appear to have a time stamp that began in earnest with the 2006 resignation by then-State Comptroller Alan Hevesi. He left office as part of a deal with prosecutors who accused him of using state resources to help chauffeur around his sick wife. He was subsequently convicted and sent to prison in a “pay-to-play” scheme involving the big state pension system that he ran.
Since then, New York has seen a governor, Eliot Spitzer, depart office in a prostitution scandal and a steady lineup of state lawmakers departing their jobs because of convictions on everything from bribery to theft of state grants to embezzlement or, in what appears to be a reliable failing in Albany, sexual harassment of staff members.
Like clockwork, lawmakers in the minority parties in both houses quickly called on Assembly Democrats and Senate Republicans to embrace more-stringent ethics laws in New York. Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb, R-Canandaigua, noted that the Assembly has so far passed 309 bills this year but that none dealt with changes in ethics or campaign finance laws.
‘A sort of numbness’
“We have 15 session days remaining. The rest of the Legislature and the governor need to act. It is time that New York’s elected officials show their constituents that federal prosecutors aren’t the only ones interested in cleaning up the mess in Albany,” Kolb said.
In the Senate, Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-Yonkers, said the Skelos sentence “should serve as a wake-up call” for the Senate GOP to embrace “real ethics reforms and not just lip service and political posturing.”
So far, Senate Republicans have embraced one of the half-dozen or more ideas kicking around Albany: passage of a constitutional amendment resolution to strip away government pensions for officials convicted of corruption.
As prosecutors have warned in corruption cases including the Skelos scandal, this steady drip, drip, drip of corruption cases affect more than just the pocketbooks of New Yorkers.
“There’s a sort of numbness that takes over. ‘OK, here’s ‘fill in the blank’ being prosecuted for ‘fill-in-the-blank’ crime.’ It’s sort of business as usual,” said James Campbell, distinguished professor of political science at the University at Buffalo.
The impact can affect everything from voter participation levels to dissuading some people from entering public service.
“It does further cause a deterioration of the public’s respect for politicians and government,” Campbell said, “and it feeds on some stereotypes that have developed that government is intrinsically a corrupting influence.”