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Retrial of Corruption Case Begins Against Former State Senator and Son

For the second time in three years, a federal prosecutor told jurors on Wednesday that former state Sen. Dean G. Skelos had used his position as majority leader to extort executives at three companies to give work to his son.

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James C. McKinley Jr.
, New York Times

For the second time in three years, a federal prosecutor told jurors on Wednesday that former state Sen. Dean G. Skelos had used his position as majority leader to extort executives at three companies to give work to his son.

“This case is about the abuse of political power to satisfy personal greed,” the prosecutor, Douglas Zolkind, told a jury as the retrial of Skelos and his son, Adam, began in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. “It’s about the public trust that is violated when a politician uses his power to get payoffs.”

But the U.S. attorney’s office faces a challenge this time: a Supreme Court ruling in 2016 that narrowed the definition of corruption and led judges to overturn the convictions of Dean Skelos and another entrenched Albany figure, former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.

Dean Skelos, 70, and Adam Skelos, 35, are accused in an eight-count indictment of operating “a corrupt scheme to monetize” the senator’s official position. Dean Skelos is charged with soliciting bribes, extortion under the color of official right and honest services fraud. His son is charged with aiding and abetting him to commit those crimes. Both men are charged with conspiracy to commit extortion and honest services fraud.

G. Robert Gage Jr., a lawyer for the elder Skelos, stressed the new legal standard in his opening statement, telling jurors the former senator had never taken an official action in return for about $300,000 officials at three companies funneled to Adam Skelos.

Gage said Skelos had supported laws the companies were seeking to extend for decades, and the company officials involved had no fear he would pull his support. “There was no criminal exchange,” Gage said. “There no trade, no quid pro quo.”

Zolkind said Skelos used his power as the majority leader to pressure the companies, all of them seeking passage of legislation, to pay his son about $300,000 through a no-show job, a consulting contract and a $20,000 check disguised as a title insurance payment.

“Again and again Senator Skelos abused his power so Adam Skelos could get paid,” Zolkind said. “He targeted and strong-armed businesses that depended on state legislation.”

A jury found the father and son guilty of those charges in December 2015. That verdict, paired with the conviction of Silver, seemed to strike a blow to the culture of corruption and pay-to-play politics in Albany.

Two years later, however, a federal appeals court threw out both verdicts. In the Skelos case, the judges said that while there was evidence Skelos had traded his votes to benefit his son, the trial judge had defined corruption too broadly in instructing jurors. The judges in both appeals said it was possible the juries had convicted Silver and Skelos for conduct that was not illegal under the 2016 Supreme Court decision overturning the conviction of Bob McDonnell, a former governor of Virginia.

In that decision, the Supreme Court held that prosecutors had to show a government official took a concrete formal action in return for something of value. Simply extending a political courtesy, like setting up a meeting or urging underlings to consider a matter, was not enough, the court said.

Last month, Silver was convicted a second time after a trial that was in essence a repeat of the first one, but with different instructions to the jury.

One of the government’s star witnesses, Anthony Bonomo, also may face a tougher cross-examination. Bonomo, an old friend of Skelos, owns a medical malpractice insurance company, Physicians’ Reciprocal Insurers. In the first trial, he described how the company’s need for the senator’s help in getting legislation passed influenced his decision to hire Adam Skelos in 2011 and to keep him on the payroll, even though he seldom showed up to work.

Since the first trial, however, Bonomo, who is cooperating with prosecutors, has been forced from his management position by state regulators amid charges of self-dealing, mismanagement and cronyism. Gage said during his opening statement those allegations of misconduct undermined Bonomo’s credibility.

The retrial, before District Judge Kimba M. Wood, is expected to last four weeks.

Zolkind said the evidence would show Skelos had pressured three companies — Glenwood Management, Physicians’ Reciprocal Services and AbTech Industries — to give his son work in return for help passing bills.

The senator leaned on Glenwood Management, a New York City real estate developer, to funnel a $20,000 payment to Adam Skelos and to arrange for him to get a lucrative consulting contract from AbTech, an Arizona stormwater treatment company in which Glenwood had a stake, he said.

AbTech later landed a $12 million contract to provide services to Nassau County in the heart of his Skelos’ senate district, and Adam Skelos threatened to use his father’s influence to scuttle the contract unless he received a hefty pay raise, the prosecutor said.

But Julian S. Brod — Adam Skelos’ lawyer — told jurors Wednesday the government could not prove a connection between his client’s work for AbTech and the passage of the tax incentives for developers that Glenwood Management was seeking. The legislation had passed in June 2011, a year before AbTech hired Adam Skelos, he said. “The evidence will not show there was a corrupt exchange,” he said.

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