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Silver, Skelos trials may prove 'seismic' for Albany

ALBANY -- It's Preet vs. Albany in one of the biggest battles in state political history.

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara has won convictions against nine state legislators, upended the leadership of both the state Assembly and Senate and launched an investigation that touches on the Cuomo administration.

Now, his biggest cases to date take a huge step forward when the prosecutor puts not one, but two of the formerly most powerful men in New York politics on trial over the next few weeks. Observers have called the potential impact "seismic."

"It's just extraordinary that the (former) leaders of the two legislative bodies of the state of New York are going on trial on corruption charges in the same month," said Jennifer Rodgers, executive director of Columbia University's Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity. She added that it was "amazing they are accused of doing the same thing": using a powerful elected office to benefit personally.

On Monday, the trial of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) gets underway with the ex-power broker facing seven counts of extortion, mail fraud, wire fraud and illegal monetary transactions.

In sum, Bharara has alleged that Silver steered real estate legislation and funneled state medical research funds in return for $4 million in illegal kickbacks disguised as legal referral fees. Silver, 71, who led the Assembly from 1994 to 2014, has pleaded not guilty and has said he will be "vindicated."

On Nov. 16, the trial of state Sen. Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) and his son, Adam, begins. The two face eight charges, essentially alleging that the former Senate majority leader solicited bribes and extorted three different companies to hire Adam in return for favorable legislation and public-works contracts. Both men have pleaded not guilty.

Legislative peers forced Silver and Skelos to resign as leaders after being indicted. But both held on to their elected offices.

Pretty much all of New York's political and legal communities will tune in, said James Cohen, a Fordham University Law School professor.

"Bharara's no fool and he knows people are watching him," Cohen said, adding that the prosecutor is trying to prove, beyond the individual cases, that the "system is not nearly as clean as we think."

Cohen said the trial will depend heavily on what potentially corroborating witnesses say on the stand -- prosecutors already have secured cooperation from the companies allegedly involved.

While the indictments changed leadership in both houses in Albany, it's not clear if behaviors will change, watchdogs said.

"There's definitely been an atmospheric change. Now, has it produced tangible results? I don't know," said Doug Muzzio, a political-science professor at Baruch College.

One change has been noticeable: Glenwood Management, the New Hyde Park-based development company that's involved in both cases, has dramatically reduced its campaign giving.

For years, the Long Island-based luxury apartment developer has been one of the most generous contributors to New York politicians, showering Republicans and Democrats with at least $13.4 million in contributions since 1999.

But in the first six months of 2015, Glenwood, its longtime leader, Leonard Litwin, and affiliated companies contributed only about $60,000 to candidates and political committees.

Lawmakers contend they have passed laws in the last few years that force themselves to disclose more about outside incomes and business dealings. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx), who replaced Silver, has told editorial boards during a tour of the state this year that he would support laws that increase transparency but that "part of this I still think comes down to an individual's morality and their ability to do the right thing."

But Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group said Cuomo and legislators "appear to be content to take the public relations hit rather than do anything about it. It's been a see-no-evil approach."

That said, Horner predicted that if both Silver and Skelos are convicted, "it would have a seismic impact" on how Albany operates.

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