ALBANY -- Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, usually tanned and quick with a wink and a quip for reporters, was ashen and shaken when he arrived here at 9 p.m. Monday near the end of perhaps his longest day.
Over more than 12 hours earlier in the day, the 67-year-old from Rockville Centre had endured the filing of corruption charges against him and his son, Adam. U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara portrayed Skelos, who has spent 30 years in the Senate, as a ruthless political boss who operated "not for what was good for New York, but rather what was good for his son's bank account."
"What do you say to the people who are calling you a crook?" a TV reporter shouted after Skelos walked up three flights of stairs in the Capitol.
Skelos didn't respond as he strode into the meeting that would decide whether he kept the leadership role he's held since 2008.
Minutes after he entered the private meeting, cheers and applause rose from behind the heavy wood doors.
"He came in and said, 'Look, I'm innocent of these charges,'" said one senator. Skelos then presented a vigorous defense. "His statement was very powerful, very emotional. He's a fighter."
Three hours later, near midnight, Skelos emerged, still majority leader and one of Albany's three most powerful political figures. Senate Republicans, as they have done so often to survive in the Democrat-dominated state, had closed ranks.
"Our conference believes that I'm innocent," Skelos said Tuesday, dismissing Monday's criminal complaint as "no more than a press release."
Unlike the Assembly's Democratic majority, which weeks before replaced longtime Speaker Sheldon Silver when he was hit with corruption charges, senators in the closed-door meeting Monday didn't demand that Skelos resign his leadership post.
"Nobody really said that because they were so strong for staying together," one veteran senator said on the condition of anonymity because conference discussions are supposed to remain private. "Even candidates for leader basically supported him staying on as leader."
Among senators Monday night, there was a caveat: "He said if things went really wrong for him, he'd do what was best for the conference," one senator said.
Under the agreement, Skelos would remain majority leader until at least the end of session on June 17.
The strength of that support, however, is yet to be tested. Senators will have to defend their support of a leader charged with corruption to a constituency fed up with Albany corruption. In Syracuse, the criminal complaint against Skelos was taped to a utility poll at a busy intersection.
Senate Democrats said they were surprised Skelos didn't resign, noting that Deputy Majority Leader Thomas Libous (R-Binghamton) also faces federal corruption charges in an alleged scheme to land a lucrative job for his son.
"I'm surprised they have decided to continue down this track, and unfortunately, the longer that goes on, the more distracted the body is from doing the people's business," said Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers).
And Tuesday, GOP freshmen Sens. Robert Ortt of Lockport and Rich Funke of Rochester were the first to break ranks and called for Skelos to resign the leadership post.
The key argument in Monday night's meeting was a legal one, senators said. "A lot of the lawyers spoke and said how, basically, the case was weak," the senator said.
Republicans argued that Bharara's accusations that Skelos used his public power to favor companies with state contracts and tax breaks to win pay for his son are without merit. They note that the actions the prosecutors claim Skelos took were infrastructure and tax measures supported by the full conference.
Others argued that the majority leader "didn't do anything but try to help his son."
In all, about 20 senators spoke over three hours, almost all in support of Skelos, three senators agreed. Another senator said, "It was definitely about friendship."
"Some were more emotional than others," another senator noted, but they all agreed the meeting was far more business than catharsis.
After the meeting, one senator said: "The sense was, 'It's over. Let's get back to work.'"
Tuesday, Skelos and senators were giving all the appearances of business as usual. Skelos attended a police memorial service and senators attended committee meetings and met with constituents and lobbyists.
"I know that I'm innocent, and we're ready to govern," he said. "I serve as long as they want me to serve."
With Yancey Roy