The office of the two most powerful politicians in New York are under subpoena. Former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos is set to be sentenced Thursday on federal corruption charges. And Sheldon Silver, the former legendary leader of the State Assembly, is about to begin a 12-year prison term.
It’s an extraordinary time in political scandal, even for New Yorkers, who often swing from apathy to cynicism when it comes to public corruption, said Michael Johnston, a Colgate University professor emeritus.
“It says something about our pervasive ethical problems. It says something about our conflict-of-interest laws lagging behind the craftiness of those who try to get around them. And it’s a story about prosecutorial commitment and priorities,” said Johnston, who has written extensively about political corruption, even comparing levels of it from state to state.
In less than two weeks in New York:
- Federal investigators subpoenaed Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s “executive chamber,” the term for his office, seeking records and other materials related to the governor’s economic-development issues, especially the “Buffalo Billion,” a signature Cuomo initiative to encourage the development of hi-tech firms in the Buffalo area. Previously, investigators subpoenaed a Cuomo agency and the State University of New York Polytechnic Institute, which has been a key player in many of the governor’s high-tech programs.
- Prosecutors subpoenaed advisers to New York Mayor Bill de Blasio regarding the possible illegal funneling of campaign contributions that were part of an effort to flip control of the State Senate to Democrats. The mayor, who has been very open about his campaign against Senate Republicans, said that no law was broken, that he used the same tactics many others have and that prosecution seemed selectively targeted at him.
- Silver was sentenced to 12 years in prison, after being convicted in November of extortion, conspiracy and bribery. Silver, who ran the Assembly for 20 years through five different governors, was accused of steering state grants and legislation in exchange for kickbacks disguised as legal referral fees.
- Skelos, a Rockville Centre Republican who led the Senate from 2011 to 2015, was convicted of coercing several companies that had business before the state to hire Adam Skelos, his son, who was also convicted.
In the past decade, at least 24 state lawmakers have been convicted of serious crimes: extortion, bribery, ballot-rigging, sham marriages, pilfered nonprofits, and sex with minors. More than a dozen others have been hit with fines for ethical breaches or drunken driving.
Most of the high-profile cases have been brought by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, prosecutor for the federal Southern District of New York. He successfully convicted Silver, Skelos and ex-Sen. Malcolm Smith, a Democrat who was convicted in a scheme to rig the Republican ballot for New York mayor in his favor, among others.
“Corruption conviction figures have a lot to do with the priorities of the U.S. attorney” in each federal district, Johnston noted. “Preet has turned the issue on its head by focusing on these people and what’s been going on.”
State legislators, aware of the sequence of events in the past month, said the bad actions of a few are casting an unfair light on them all.
“I think the majority of legislators who come up here do the right thing,” said Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx), who replaced Silver last year. “In every industry you have bad apples, and whatever the industry is, it shouldn’t tarnish those who do the right thing.”
If the sentencings of two ex-house leaders of one state weren’t enough, now New York’s two most powerful politicians are under the microscope.
“What strikes me about this is the two chief executives of the state are under investigation at the same time,” said Doug Muzzio, a Baruch College political scientist.
A state Elections Board enforcement counsel accused de Blasio and his aides of funneling large contributions from unions and other donors through county Democratic committees to three State Senate candidates upstate in 2014 in an unsuccessful party effort to retake control from Republicans. The counsel, Risa Sugarman, who was appointed by Cuomo, said it was likely that de Blasio and others committed “willful and flagrant violations” of campaign-finance laws and referred the matter for criminal prosecution.
The mayor has blasted the focus on him as a “selective” witch hunt — noting that Sugarman left out the state Democratic campaign committee, which is controlled by the governor. An attorney for the mayor said de Blasio and allies have done nothing wrong.
Meanwhile in Albany, Bharara issued a subpoena to Cuomo’s office seeking records and documents related to a criminal probe of the Buffalo Billion projects, a source said. No individual employees of the governor were named in the subpoena, the source said.
Investigators also now are looking for records involving a power plant proposed in the Hudson Valley by Maryland-based Competitive Power Ventures, a source with knowledge of the probe has said. They also are looking at former Cuomo aide Joseph Percoco and lobbyist Todd Howe, who has worked for both the governor and his father, the late Mario Cuomo, sources have said.
Howe was a lobbyist for the power company; Percoco has acknowledged receiving consulting fees from it while on leave from the state payroll but while working for Cuomo’s re-election campaign.
The administration issued a statement blaming a “lobbyist” and former employees for possible deception. Later, Cuomo ordered staff to cut off dealing with Howe and suspend any activities with CPV while defending Percoco — his right-hand man for years — as a “good man.”