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Federal prosecutor in opening statement at trial says Sen. Dean Skelos 'abused his power'

Republican State Sen. Dean Skelos, his son Adam, and their lawyers arrive at a federal courthouse in Manhattan on Nov. 17, 2015, the second day of jury selection in their corruption trial on charges of conspiracy, bribery and extortion. (Credit: Charlie Eckert)

A federal prosecutor said Sen. Dean Skelos "abused his power" to "line the pockets" of his son Adam as opening statements began Tuesday in the closely watched federal corruption trial of the once-powerful former Republican majority leader in Albany.

"This case is the age-old tale of the abuse of political power to satisfy personal greed," prosecutor Tatiana Martins told jurors in Manhattan federal court. "What the defendants did to line the pockets of the Skelos family wasn't just wrong. It was corrupt, and it was a crime."

But Robert Gage, Dean Skelos' lawyer, denied charges that the senator "sold his office" and his power to extort companies into giving Adam Skelos jobs and make him a success, casting the case and FBI wiretaps of the two as a government intrusion into a parent's bond with a sometimes "volatile" son who needed help.

"You can be a Senate leader and still be a father," said Gage. "It's not a crime . . . You're always going to hear a concerned, involved father, not a criminal co-conspirator."

Adam's lawyer Christopher Conniff struck the same theme, telling jurors the charges were based on nothing more sinister than Dean trying to do what all fathers do -- help find his kid a job.

"What the government is trying is to turn a very normal father-son relationship into a crime, simply because of who the father is," Conniff said.

Dean Skelos, 67, and Adam, 33, both of Rockville Centre, are accused of conspiring to shake down companies with state business to get them to hire Adam and pay him $300,000 in pay and benefits.

U.S. District Judge Kimba Wood finished seating a jury of nine women and three men yesterday morning.

The senator allegedly used his position to squeeze three companies in need of legislative support -- New Hyde Park developer Glenwood Management, Arizona environmental technology firm AbTech Industries and Physicians' Reciprocal Insurers of Roslyn -- and leaned on Nassau County to give AbTech a $10 million storm-water contract to help Adam.

The trial, widely viewed as a high-stakes test for Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara's campaign to clean up Albany, is expected to last three to five weeks. Bharara was in attendance for the start of openings, as were the wives of both defendants and other family members.

In her opening, Martins mocked the idea that Dean Skelos' actions were justified by Adam's need for help, referring to the son as "a full-grown man" who was making six figures annually selling title insurance when the scheme began and wanted "help" from his father to buy a $675,000 house with a pool.

She also revealed for the first time that former Sen. Al D'Amato tried to intervene when Adam blew off work, saying he was untouchable and his supervisor wasn't qualified to "shine my shoes" at Physicians' Reciprocal, owned by political insider Anthony Bonomo, a former New York racing official.

But she said even longtime GOP power broker D'Amato couldn't get Dean to let the company dump Adam.

"He said Adam Skelos needed the money," said Martins. "That was his response to a former United States senator."

Prosecutors later called the supervisor, Chris Curcio, 45, of Floral Park, who testified that Adam was a "no-show" who had "a sense of entitlement, arrogance . . . He said, 'You know who I am. I'm Adam Skelos.' "

Conniff, in his opening statement, admitted that Adam was sometimes "immature," "emotional," "nasty" and "rude," describing him as a young man "trying desperately to be a success and doing so in the shadow of a successful father," but said prosecutors should not be allowed to make the case about the son's personal "weaknesses."

"It's not a popularity contest," Conniff said. "It's a federal criminal trial."

Prosecutors contend Skelos "targeted" those he squeezed, because he had leverage -- Glenwood needed tax and rent laws he could control, AbTech needed fracking legislation and infrastructure funding, Physicians' Reciprocal needed help on malpractice bills, and Nassau County relied on him for everything in Albany.

"Did they hire Adam because he was the right person," Martins asked, "or because they were afraid the Senate majority leader would punish them?"

But Gage insisted the government never proved a legally required "quid pro quo" -- that Skelos took any position different from the positions he had taken in the past. For example, the support he gave AbTech for project funding and a Nassau contract, Gage argued, had nothing to do with Adam -- it reflected the senator's longstanding support of "infrastructure."

Martins also contended that on wiretaps, the Skeloses spoke in "code" and referred to living in "dangerous times," indications they had a guilty conscience.

But Gage disputed that portrayal, noting that many wiretaps were made after Bharara indicted former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and told reporters to "stay tuned" for more corruption cases.

Testimony resumes Wednesday.

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