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Long IslandColumnistsDan Janison

GOP weighs impact of Libous case

Deputy Senate Majority Leader Thomas Libous talks to

Deputy Senate Majority Leader Thomas Libous talks to reporters on the Senate floor before session in Albany on Jan. 14, 2013. Credit: AP

For friends and colleagues of ailing state Sen. Thomas Libous (R-Binghamton), a sad contrast arises between his federal indictment on Tuesday and the acquittal six weeks ago of former GOP Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno on federal corruption charges.

Less than a decade ago, Libous was widely viewed as a rival to Sen. Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) to succeed Bruno as GOP leader. Bruno left in 2008; Skelos won the leadership, only to see his majority position slip away, temporarily, the following Election Day.

But any tension between Skelos and top deputy Libous disappeared as the two closed ranks to win back the GOP's last state power base. The Republicans' grip has depended for the past two years on support from dissident Democrats.

Within the GOP conference, there is now a kind of infield chatter. It goes that U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, with the zeal of the ambitious prosecutor, could find no better weapon against Libous than the single claim that he lied to the FBI in 2010 when questioned about alleged transactions involving his son Matthew.

In this vein, none other than Bruno himself stepped forward to defend Libous and bash Bharara.

"A lie is in the ears of the beholder," Bruno said -- rather remarkably -- in an Albany radio interview. "Why didn't they charge him [Libous] two years ago, or three years ago?" Bruno asked. "Why now in the middle of the political season?"

A public airing of these charges sprouted in 2012 out of GOP turf in New York City's northern suburbs. Anthony Mangone, a witness against another former Republican senator, Nicholas Spano of Westchester, who ended up serving time for tax evasion, testified Libous pushed his law firm to hire Matthew Libous. The allegation goes that Sen. Libous steered funds from a lobbying firm to boost his son's salary to $150,000.

The younger Libous has been indicted separately on tax-related charges. He and his father have pleaded not guilty.

Having already prosecuted other Albany lawmakers, and criticized Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's disbanding of his Moreland Commission on Public Corruption, Bharara made his most recent splash by saying Libous "took advantage of his position" by acting corruptly and then lied to cover it up.

Whatever the merits, GOP operatives say the case against Libous, who has cancer, shouldn't hurt their conference's chances in November. They note that Republicans outnumber Democrats in Libous's 52nd District. They see a chance to flip several other upstate seats their way. They say they can defend all nine on Long Island.

Beyond that, Senate Republicans cite a sharp difference between presidential-year turnouts, which seem to hurt their candidates, and gubernatorial-year turnouts, in which they do better.

In the 2006 election, when Democrat Eliot Spitzer won the governorship in a landslide, the Senate stayed firmly in GOP hands. But 2008, the year of President Barack Obama's first win, left Republicans in the State Senate minority for the first time since 1965.

In 2010, while Democrat Cuomo trounced Republican Carl Paladino for governor, Skelos and company won a slim majority. But in 2012, another presidential year, GOP Senate candidates lost ground again.

If 2014 fits the pattern, the Libous case could prove tangential -- at least electorally.

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