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Former Senate leader's corruption conviction overturned

Karen Dewitt
WRVO News file photo

Former state Senate Leader Dean Skelos and his son Adam saw their federal corruption convictions overturned by a federal appeals court panel Tuesday.

Skelos is the second former legislative leader to win his case on appeal in the past two months, after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling revised the laws under which they were convicted.

The Skeloses were convicted in December 2015 of extortion and bribery in an alleged scheme by the elder Skelos to use his political influence to steer work and to award a no-show job to his son.

Prosecutors say they will retry the Skeloses.

Joon Kim, acting U.S. Attorney for the Southern District, said in a statement that while he is “disappointed” in the decision, there was “overwhelming evidence” that was “more than sufficient to convict Dean and Adam Skelos.”

Kim replaced U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who oversaw the Skeloses’ case, after Bharara was fired by President Donald Trump.

Kim said the only issue in the appeals panel decision is that the jury instructions were incorrect, because of the recent Supreme Court decision, which involved former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife.

Susan Lerner with the government reform group Common Cause said that’s a key point.

“We think it is extremely likely that another 12 New Yorkers will look at this conduct (and) apply their common sense under the corrected legal standard,” Lerner said. “And they’ll find that this is objectionable conduct yet again.”

It is the second time in recent months that the conviction of a former legislative leader has been overturned on appeal. Former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver in July saw his 2015 conviction on bribery and kickback charges rescinded. He is also facing retrial.

Both former legislative leaders benefited from a 2016 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that occurred after their trials. It reversed corruption charges against McDonnell and his wife. The court ruled that federal attorneys had interpreted the law too broadly, and that the jury was not properly instructed on the meaning of an “official act” within the federal bribery statutes.

Dean and Adam Skelos were sentenced to prison terms of five and six-and-a-half years, respectively. But they have remained free on bail as they awaited the appeal result.

Lerner said New York state should enact reforms and make changes to its laws so that the actions by the former legislative leaders are clearly prohibited. She said there “really should never be a question” when an elected official uses “taxpayer-funded resources” to gain favors for themselves and their family.

“That’s illegal, period,” Lerner said.

State lawmakers so far have not approved a range of reform proposals, including banning outside income for legislators. They have approved a proposal to let a judge decide whether to rescind the pensions of politicians who are convicted of felonies. That measure goes before voters in November.

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.