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Former Senate leader and son convicted in federal corruption trial

Dean Skelos, a former state Senate leader, and his son were convicted Tuesday of bribery and extortion charges.
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Dean Skelos, a former state Senate leader, and his son were convicted Tuesday of bribery and extortion charges.

A former New York state Senate leader and his son were convicted on Tuesday of extortion, wire fraud and bribery charges that they pressured businesses to give the son no-show jobs or else risk losing the powerful Republican's political support. 

A jury in federal court in Manhattan deliberated over the course of four days before reaching the verdict at the trial of Dean Skelos and his son, Adam. 

The trial was one of the most important in a spate of recent cases that have cast a harsh light on corruption in Albany. Former state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Democrat, was convicted in May of corruption. 

Prosecutors in the Skelos trial had told jurors that the father and son were "partners in crime" who showed such blatant disregard for conflicts of interest that they broke the law. They accused the pair of extorting roughly $300,000 in payments from wealthy business executives who were dependent on the Long Island senator's backing on legislation benefiting their financial interests. 

The companies felt "constant pressure from Dean Skelos -- the fear he would punish them by using his official power if they didn't pay up,'' Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas McKay said in closing arguments. "They were the targets of the Skelos family shakedown."

The evidence included a wiretap recording of a phone call in 2014 in which Skelos boasted to his son that in his position as Senate leader he would "control everything," including which bills would come to the floor for a vote. 

"Everybody's going to know who calls the shots, Adam," he said. "Believe me." 

Dean and Adam Skelos and their lawyers declined comment as they left the courtroom Tuesday. 

The defense had sought to portray the elder Skelos as a doting father who was merely trying to look out for a son struggling to find employment and pay for a $675,000 home. His lawyers argued there was no evidence that the ex-senator took any official action for the businessmen. 

Skelos, 70, testified in his own defense, claiming there was never a quid pro quo expected when he reached out on behalf of Adam. 

"I didn't see a problem with it,'' he said. "I asked a lot of people to help my son.'' 

Among the government witnesses was Anthony Bonomo, an insurance company CEO who described how Adam Skelos stopped turning up for a $78,000-a-year sales job he gave him. Even so, he didn't consider firing him because he "didn't want Adam's problem to become a wedge for our legislative pursuits in Albany. I just didn't want to have a problem with the senator." 

Another witness, title company partner Tom Dwyer, testified that he was the bag man for a real estate developer who decided to give Adam Skelos a $20,000 bribe disguised as a referral fee for title insurance. He said he delivered the check over lunch on Long Island in 2013. 

Robert Gage, who represented Dean Skelos, said in his closing arguments that the government witnesses weren't credible because they were testifying under non-prosecution agreements. 

Bonomo, who knew Skelos socially for several years, "was a friend looking out for a friend's son," Gage said. "There's no extortion or bribery going on." 

Prosecutors pointed to the wiretap recordings as further proof the defendants knew they were breaking the law and were afraid of getting caught. In one, Skelos could be heard advising his son about the need for discretion amid the state capital's ongoing corruption scandal, saying, "Right now we're in dangerous times, Adam."

The exchange showed the defendants clearly were paranoid about being recorded, said another prosecutor, Edward Diskant. "They should have been. They were talking about criminal conduct on the phone."

It was the second trial for the father and son. They were convicted in 2015 of extortion, conspiracy and bribery, but a new trial was ordered by a federal appeals court in Manhattan after the U.S. Supreme Court narrowed the law regarding public corruption as it reversed the conviction of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell. 

The case was prosecuted in the same courthouse that saw a fall from power for Silver, who was found guilty on corruption charges that he took kickbacks in exchange for legislative favors. 

Silver, a Democrat who's still awaiting sentencing, and Skelos were among a trio dubbed the "three men in a room" in Albany, a nod to the longstanding practice of legislative leaders and the governor negotiating key bills behind closed doors.

The conviction comes less than a week after the former architect of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s economic development programs, Alain Kaloyeros, was convicted on bid-rigging charges, along with three upstate developers.  In March, Cuomo’s former closest aide was convicted of bribery.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.