Rep. Thomas Suozzi is proposing legislation to close a “loophole” that allowed a federal appeals court to vacate the corruption convictions of Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos, formerly the top two men in the New York State Legislature.
Suozzi (D-Glen Cove) said Wednesday that he is joining Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) to introduce a bill that would broaden and make clear the definition of “official acts” that can be used as the basis for corruption prosecutions.
A day earlier, a federal appeals court vacated the 2015 conviction of Skelos, of Rockville Centre, because the trial of the former Republican leader of the state Senate gave the jury improper instructions about what actions could constitute a crime. The appeals court relied on a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision, known as McDonnell, that narrowed the scope of public corruption prosecutions.
Earlier this year, Silver, a Manhattan Democrat who controlled the state Assembly for 20 years, saw his 2015 conviction on bribery and conspiracy charges vacated on a similar basis.
Suozzi said Congress needs to act to close a gap in federal laws to stem corruption and restore public trust.
“We can’t allow corruption convictions to be overturned based on legal technicalities,” Suozzi said. “We don’t want to give elected officials the sense you can do whatever you want and get away with it.”
Suozzi, a former Nassau County executive, said his bill would cover elected officials’ “personal or substantial participation” in issues, contracts or other matters. That would include actions that led to approval or disapproval of a law, contract or policy, or rendering of an opinion. It wouldn’t include such things as setting up meetings for constituents with government agencies.
Suozzi acknowledged the measure couldn’t impact the Silver and Skelos cases retroactively. Prosecutors have vowed to retry both men.
Suozzi said it was an “effort to help prosecutors going forward to not have this uncertainty” about federal law.
Watchdogs, who contend the U.S. Supreme Court overreacted in the McDonnell case by making it unfairly difficult to prosecute public corruption, applauded the Suozzi-Fitzpatrick bill.
“This is an important, bipartisan response to the Supreme Court went off the rails in the McDonnell decision,” said Susan Lerner of Common Cause. “When the court gets it wrong, it’s up to Congress to step in and correct it.”
“The idea that public officials should be prohibited from self-dealing should be obvious,” said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group.