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State Senate Republicans meet behind closed doors to discuss leader's legal troubles

Karen DeWitt
WRVO News File Photo
Senate Marjority Leader Dean Skelos (R) being sworn in, in January.

The final stretch of the New York state legislative session began as more accusations arose about potential wrongdoing by top legislative leaders.

The session began with a closed door meeting by Senate Republicans, the first time that the majority party members met together since the publication of a New York Times report that says federal prosecutors are investigating Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, and his son, for possible corruption.

According to the paper, prosecutors are looking at a storm sewer company with ties to the real estate industry that was awarded a $12 million contract for Nassau County, on Long Island, where the senator lives. The probe also involves an alleged no-show job awarded to the senator’s son.    

Going into the meeting, many senators were tight lipped, but expressed support for the majority leader. Sen. Ken LaValle is also from Long Island. He says he’s not concerned by the news.

“People are where they are, with the leader, they have trust in and faith in,” said Lavalle. “Don’t you think we’re being a little presumptuous?”

Skelos has not been charged with any crime. Lavalle , growing increasingly uncomfortable, would not say whether or not he was subpoenaed as part of the probe.

“That’s a non- issue,” he said.

Sen. John DeFrancisco, of Syracuse, on his way into the meeting, said that he did not expect the federal probe to disrupt the second half of the session.

“It seems to be the thing of the day to be investigated,” said DeFrancisco. “And being the thing of the day, what do you say? ‘I’m innocent, and I’m going to continue doing my job.' That’s the proper perspective.”  

But DeFrancisco says he thinks Skelos, as anyone who is the focus on a federal probe, will be stressed and distracted.

“I can’t imagine being under the pressure of actually doing work in Albany and also having to be in the position of having to just wait, and see what happens,” said DeFrancisco. “Because you can’t do anything else.”

Skelos did not comment, and afterwards, senators left by a back door to avoid the media, and began the formal session.

Sen. John Flanagan , also from Long Island, spoke off the Senate floor later on. Flanagan says the federal investigation was very briefly discussed by the majority leader in the meeting.

“I believe there is support for the majority leader,” said Flanagan.  

Flanagan, who is Education Committee chairman,  says he intends to focus on work that needs to be completed between now and the end of the session, including fixing the state’s trouble teacher evaluation system.  

Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the legislature revised the teacher performance rules as part of the budget, to put more emphasis on standardized testing. But Flanagan says he and other senators got an earful from constituents when they went home to their districts for the spring break.

“Lots of emails, lots of phone calls lots of visits,” said Flanagan. “We’re reacting to things like that.”

Flanagan says he thinks the new teacher evaluations may have to be revisited by the legislature before June.

In addition, New York City’s rent laws expire in June. They are tied, through prior legislation, to renewal of a property tax cap.

DeFrancisco, who is also Finance Committee chairman, agrees that it’s important now to focus on the work that lies ahead.

“Rather than just languishing over an undisclosed investigation,” DeFrancisco said.  “And just sit here like potted plants”.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie was still traveling in Cuba with Cuomo and did not attend the first full session day since passage of the budget. Heastie was the subject of a different New York Times story that said the speaker profited from embezzlement crimes committed by his mother. Heastie did not sell a house immediately that his mother paid for in part with stolen money. The sale was required a part of a restitution agreement. Instead, after his mother died, Heastie held on to the house for several years, later selling it at a personal profit. The speaker has denied any wrong doing.

Heastie has held the speaker’s post for just over two months, when the former speaker, Sheldon Silver, was arrested and charged with running a multi million dollar fraud scheme, and resigned.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.