Dean Skelos, the former majority leader of the New York...

Dean Skelos, the former majority leader of the New York State Senate, is mobbed by members of the media as he leaves federal court in Manhattan on May 12, 2016. Credit: John Roca

New Yorkers may not be able to count on federal plumbers to drain the swamp.

A U.S. Court of Appeals on Tuesday overturned the federal corruption conviction of former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, much as it did in July for former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. Both state leaders were taken down in 2015 by former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara in public corruption cases that scrambled the power map in Albany.

Both appeals court rulings made clear that overturning the convictions did not mean innocents had been brought to the slaughter, only that while their cases were moving through the justice system, the proof needed in public corruption cases changed. The rulings said there was enough evidence against each man to justify retrials and the U.S. attorney’s office has vowed to do so.

In a 2016 case involving former Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell, the U.S. Supreme Court narrowed the definition of the “official act” that a politician must take before gifts, cash and favors can be considered bribery. Chief Justice John G. Roberts wrote that passing a law would suffice, but routine acts such as setting up a meeting or making a call did not. The court was concerned about “the government’s boundless interpretation of the federal bribery statute.”

The rulings in the Skelos and Silver cases, however, do not mean that Albany isn’t a cesspool of self-dealing and conflicts of interest. Skelos was accused of using his power to get jobs for his son, Adam, and then using his clout to reward those firms with public contracts. Silver was accused of finagling $4 million in kickbacks for himself.

If federal law is too slippery to stop such misconduct, state prosecutors should step up. Or Albany can change the rules to discourage bad behavior. More likely, however, is that the stench will just get stronger.


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