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Editorial: Overturning of Skelos conviction is a defeat for ethical behavior

If former New York State Senate Majority Leader Dean G. Skelos skates on corruption charges, it will send the exact wrong message to all unscrupulous politicians and their enablers.

In other words, not much will have changed in Albany despite the best and noble efforts of former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara. As chief federal prosecutor in the Southern District of New York, he won convictions of both Skelos and his counterpart in unethical behavior, former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.

It may have been all for naught.

Silver’s corruption case was overturned in the summer and now Skelos has been declared innocent and the conviction of his son, Adam Skelos, also will be overturned.

The confounding actions stem from the U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning the corruption conviction of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell.

That June 2016 decision narrowed the definition of public corruption, basically saying that what he did may have been unethical, but it wasn’t a crime. The ruling gives hope for others awaiting corruption trials, including political operative and former Erie County Democratic Chairman G. Steven Pigeon.

It also leaves average New Yorkers shaking their heads in frustration. How can trading on an elected office for personal gain not be a crime?

Skelos was convicted in December 2015 of abusing his position to financially benefit his son, Adam. The elder Skelos was found to have intimidated business owners into giving his son what amounted to no-show jobs. Both men were convicted on charges of conspiracy, extortion and soliciting bribes.

Former Assembly Speaker Silver was convicted in the same month of enriching himself by abusing his office.

Former New York Attorney General Dennis C. Vacco was among 46 former state attorneys general who signed a friend of the court brief in the McDonnell case urging the high court to differentiate between official and political actions. Or, in our opinion, to suspend disbelief.

Vacco attributed the appellate decision to the Skelos jury receiving poor instructions on the details of what constitutes an official act, following the line set by the McDonnell decision.

By that reasoning, a crime was committed but the criminal is going free because someone failed to explain the crime correctly to the jury.

The first step is to retry the Skelos and Silver cases. Joon H. Kim, the acting U.S. attorney who succeeded Bharara as chief federal prosecutor, says he is prepared to do just that: “Cleaning up corruption is never easy, and that is certainly true for corruption in New York State government. But we are as committed as ever to doing everything we can to keep our government honest.”

Even new convictions for Silver and Skelos are unlikely to change Albany’s culture of corruption. What is needed are strong new ethics laws.

Because it’s not in the interest of state legislators to slow their gravy train, it is up to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to push for strong ethics reform in the next budget process.

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