Less than a year after the 2015 corruption convictions of ex-state Senate Republican Majority Leader Dean Skelos and his son, Adam, were overturned, their retrial is set to begin Tuesday in Manhattan federal court on charges that the once-powerful Long Island politician misused his power to get companies to hire his son.
The new trial was triggered by a Supreme Court decision that raised the bar for prosecutors in bribery and extortion cases. The government must now show that the offending “official act” — what was promised or threatened in exchange for benefits — involved a “formal” exercise of power like a vote, not just giving lobbyists access or making a phone call.
At the first trial, prosecutors used both types of behavior to convict Dean Skelos, 70, and Adam, 36, both of Rockville Centre, of leveraging the senator’s power to get jobs and fees for the son worth $300,000 from developer Glenwood Management, Nassau County storm water contractor AbTech Industries, and an affiliate of Physicians Reciprocal Insurers, a Roslyn malpractice insurer.
The new standard, legal experts say, will make the government’s task somewhat more difficult by limiting arguments that any special treatment or favors the former Republican leader provided in his official capacity qualified as “official acts.”
“It is more challenging,” said Paul Krieger, a former Manhattan federal prosecutor. “The government’s path to conviction is narrower. In presenting a case to a jury the government likes to give them options and bars that are not so high to clear.”
Some experts caution, though, that a different outcome the second time around seems unlikely. The appeals court that reversed the case said there was “abundant” evidence on which a jury could still convict under the new standard, and, the experts said, jurors are likely to share a sour public mood stemming from a long string of corruption cases and allegations in both Albany and Washington.
Former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s 2015 corruption conviction was reversed on the same basis as the Skeloses’, and he was retried and re-convicted in May under the new standard after a shorter trial and deliberations that lasted two days rather than three. And, in a renewed bid for a change of venue, Skelos’ lawyers said in court Friday that questionnaires from prospective jurors showed broad hostility to Republicans.
“This is just a very tough environment,” said James Cohen, a Fordham law school criminal-law professor. “The reality is that for much of the population, they aren’t happy. They think the whole thing stinks.”
The Skeloses’ four week trial in 2015, likely to be largely replayed starting this week, included wiretapped father-son phone calls, testimony about Skelos’ control of critical legislative matters as the Senate Republican leader, and company executives describing his persistent pleas to hire Adam even during discussions of legislative matters.
Some of the most dramatic testimony described how Adam Skelos became a belligerent no-show after his father secured him a job at PRI, the malpractice insurer. Ex-U.S. Sen. Alfonse D’Amato described how he tried to intervene on behalf of owner Anthony Bonomo, and was rebuffed.
The defense portrayed Adam as a troubled son with an autistic child of his own struggling to get his bearings, and Dean Skelos as a father who was merely asking friends and associates for help, without ever explicitly threatening anyone.
Among the likely changes at the upcoming second trial:
- U.S. District Judge Kimba Wood will give new jury instructions complying with the tightened standard for an official act.
- Prosecutors will focus more intently on Skelos’ votes on rent, real estate and malpractice legislation in connection with the title-insurance work Adam Skelos got through Glenwood and his hiring at PRI, and will try to prove the senator “pressured” Nassau officials to take actions favorable to Abtech, rather than just making calls.
- The defense will try to emphasize evidence that the senator’s votes on matters affecting Glenwood and PRI didn’t change over the years, to convince jurors that he didn’t shift in exchange for help to Adam.
- Prosecutors do not plan to call Rob Walker, former deputy Nassau county executive, who testified at the first trial that Dean Skelos pressed ex-County Executive Edward Mangano at a police funeral to fund the county’s contract with AbTech. Walker now faces criminal charges, and it isn’t clear how prosecutors will replace his testimony.
- Bonomo, who testified that his fear of legislative retaliation made him keep Adam Skelos on despite nonperformance, has been ousted from his company by the state amid allegations of cronyism, self-dealing and mismanagement. The defense hopes to use that in cross-examination to discredit his veracity and his story.
While jury selection in the case begins on Tuesday, Wood has told lawyers she’ll delay opening statements and the start of testimony until Wednesday.