2015 a disastrous year for state legislative leaders

Dec 29, 2015

2015 saw the fall of two of the three most powerful people in state government, and the rise of one U.S. Attorney. 

Less than a year ago, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Leader Dean Skelos led the legislature. They were both at Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s State of the State speech on January 21, sitting on stage, where Cuomo acknowledged his partners in the government triumvirate.

“To a good year, Dean,” Cuomo said to applause from the assembled lawmakers and lobbyists in the cavernous auditorium. “It’s a pleasure to be with you, Mr. Speaker.”

And afterward, answering reporters’ questions on the governor’s proposals for the state budget.

“We haven’t seen the actual detailed language of what the governor is presenting,” said then-Speaker Silver.

As it turns out, the former Speaker was not around to negotiate the budget. He was arrested the very next day, on January 22, and a few days afterward resigned his leadership post.

State Sen. Skelos was arrested in May. He said he had done nothing wrong.

“Our conference believes that I’m innocent,” Skelos said. “I know that I’m innocent.”

Skelos’ Republican conference ousted him from his leadership position within a week.

By late fall, both men were on trial. Skelos was tried, along with his son Adam, in a case that included recorded conversations where they were portrayed in an unflattering light. In this phone call, the Skeloses lament Cuomo’s ban on fracking because they had hoped that the younger Skelos could profit from the gas drilling process.

“I just heard, I tried to get you,” the elder Skelos begins.

“Aaaaugh! this state sucks,” Adam exclaims.

“It does. It does,” Dean Skelos answers. He then tries to reassure his son.

“We’re going to totally focus on that other thing now, OK?” Dean Skelos tells Adam Skelos.

Within two weeks of each other, Silver and the Skeloses were rapidly convicted on all counts against them.

The U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara had brought both cases, along with convictions of other lawmakers. Bharara spoke on WNYC’s the Brian Lehrer show just after the convictions about the need to curb lawmakers outside income. Trading private employment for political favors was a key element of both cases.

“Common sense will tell you it is much harder to disguise a bribe or a kickback as a referral if you don’t have the ability to have the same kind of outside income,” Bharara said.

The U.S. attorney also would not rule out whether the third man in the triumvirate, Cuomo or his office, is under active investigation.

“I’m not going to talk about any investigations that we have open,” Bharara said. “We have lots of investigations open.”

But the U.S. attorney cautions, don’t read too much into that.

Cuomo has promised he’ll propose major reforms in his State of the State message, scheduled for January. But, it’s unclear how far he will go. He said he’s somewhat hamstrung on campaign finance reform due to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizen United decision that permits unlimited outside expenditures in campaigns. And, he said changing to a full time legislature with no outside income will be a hard sell.

“I spoke about it last year, there was no appetite to do it in the legislature,” Cuomo said. “I’m going to keep pushing, but you need a constitutional change to do it.”

The New York Public Interest Research Group’s Blair Horner, who’s been a reform lobbyist for nearly three decades, said it’s really going to be up to Cuomo whether change occurs at the Capitol.

“I’ve been working on this stuff for a long time, it’s almost always the executive that drives reform,” Horner said. “And in the absence of the executive driving reform, nothing happens.”

Horner said, after all, when Cuomo was first elected, he promised to restore the public trust.