National News

Albany’s Seedy Culture Is Disrobed in Latest Wave of Trials and Travails

Posted July 8, 2018 7:18 p.m. EDT
Updated July 8, 2018 7:24 p.m. EDT

ALBANY, N.Y. — Alleged payoffs. A taxpayer-paid pension despite disgrace. Keeping donations from your sworn enemies.

Such are the ways that money — legal and less so — grabbed headlines in the past week, touching current and former Albany, New York, luminaries and underscoring the state capital’s reputation as a place where personal and professional financial concerns often overshadow the work of government.

On Friday, it was Dean Skelos, the former Republican leader of the state Senate, testifying in his own defense in a federal courtroom in Manhattan as he attempts to fend off federal corruption charges that he had used his sizable influence to try to financially benefit his son, Adam.

Skelos denied that, but admitted doing what he could to help a child who seemingly had trouble taking care of himself. “Quite frankly, I’ve asked a lot of people to help my son,” he said Friday. “If I had the opportunity to ask somebody to help Adam, I did it.”

On Thursday, it was another former state official making news, as the New York Law Journal reported that former state attorney general, Eric Schneiderman, had asked for — and would receive — his pension, despite career-ending accusations of physical abuse against his romantic partners.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, meanwhile, was being hammered for several days by his Democratic primary opponent, Cynthia Nixon, for steadfastly refusing to return tens of thousands in past donations from President Donald Trump, whom he has spent the better part of the past 18 months criticizing.

“I’m going to be deeply critical of him,” the governor said Thursday. “And keep the contributions.”

It was not the first time that Cuomo, who is seeking a third term in November, has come under fire for keeping money from controversial figures. Last year, as allegations swirled around movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, Cuomo initially said he would keep past donations from him as well, before finally relenting.

In Schneiderman’s case, his pension was legally allowed despite a new law that strips pensions from public officials who are convicted of felonies related to their elected positions. In an exposé in The New Yorker published in May, Schneiderman, a Democrat, was accused of hitting and slapping four women he was romantically involved with, and he promptly resigned. But because the allegations had nothing to do with his work as attorney general, Schneiderman is entitled to nearly $64,000 a year, amid an ongoing criminal investigation into his behavior.

John Kaehny, the executive director of Reinvent Albany, a group that advocates for transparency in government, said the “ugly Albany on display in federal courtrooms and front pages across the state” flew in the face of the noble intentions of the nation’s founders.

“That idea of, ‘Do the right thing,’ is the opposite of the culture of shamelessness, cynicism, greed and moral obtuseness underlying the unending scandals engulfing Albany,” Kaehny said. “It’s that corrosive culture, and norms eroded by money and a lack of accountability, that make fixing Albany so hard.”

That sentiment echoes the position taken by Nixon, who is trailing Cuomo in the polls and has noted that the governor had received some $64,000 from Trump during past campaigns.

“Donald Trump and all of the other real estate developers who have given Cuomo millions of dollars did not do it out of the goodness of their hearts,” Lauren Hitt, a spokeswoman for the Nixon campaign, said Friday. “Real estate developers like Trump give millions to Cuomo because they know the governor will protect their interests.”

But the Cuomo campaign said that those attacks had less to do with money — noting that the most recent of the Trump donations was almost a decade ago — and more to do with Nixon trying to gain traction in the race. In their defense, the campaign offered up more than two dozen examples of other Democrats who had taken donations from Trump in the past, including Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, and argued that the contributions were actually being used against the president.

“What’s sad is so-called progressives like Cynthia Nixon being more focused on attacking fellow Democrats than fighting Donald Trump,” said Lis Smith, a spokeswoman for the Cuomo campaign. “The joke is on Trump, whose decades-old contributions are actively being used to fight him and his dangerous, anti-New York agenda.” The corrosive power of money in Albany is also at the heart of a pair of corruption trials being argued side-by-side in federal courtrooms in Manhattan, including a case involving Cuomo’s signature upstate economic development program, the Buffalo Billion. Alain E. Kaloyeros, the architect of the plan that the governor has repeatedly cited as a success, despite less-than-promised job creation, is charged with bid-rigging that benefited developers who were donors to Cuomo in connection to a $750 million solar plant in Buffalo, among other projects. (The governor has not been accused of wrongdoing and prosecutors have said the donations were legal.)

Skelos is fighting charges that he pressured companies to give his son consulting work worth $300,000 via a no-show job and a direct payment of $20,000. His testimony is expected to continue Monday, as Kaloyeros’ trial resumes down the hall.