Roughly two months after the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in Manhattan reversed former New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s corruption conviction, a federal appeals panel overturned the convictions of former State Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and his son, Adam, on Tuesday.
The Skeloses, of Rockville Centre, were found guilty of bribery, extortion and conspiracy in December 2015. They appealed the verdicts.
On Tuesday, the panel cited a 2016 Supreme Court decision involving former Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell, which narrowed the definition of an “official act” in corruption cases.
“We [identified a] charging error in light of McDonnell v. United States, which was decided after this case was tried,” the panel stated, as reported by The New York Times. “Because we cannot conclude that the charging error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt, we are obliged to vacate the convictions.”
At the center of the case was Nassau County storm-water mitigation contract with an Arizona-based company called AbTech. According to Preet Bharara, the former U.S. attorney in Manhattan who tried the case, Dean Skelos used his influence with county officials to have the agreement approved.
Skelos also allegedly helped secure more than $200,000 in payments for his son, who worked for AbTech at the time. The elder Skelos was also charged with helping secure $100,000 in health benefits and payments for his son from a medical malpractice insurer for which Adam did no work.
Dean Skelos was sentenced to five years in prison, and Adam Skelos to 6½ years. They have been out of prison on bail since Aug. 4, when a court order from U.S. District Judge Kimba Wood indicated that their appeal raised “a substantial question whether jurors received the correct instructions to make an accurate ruling.”
In reaction to the panel’s Tuesday ruling, Acting U.S. Attorney Joon Kim said, “The Second Circuit, while finding that the evidence was more than sufficient to convict Dean and Adam Skelos, held that a part of the jury instruction is no longer good law under the Supreme Court decision in McDonnell. While we are disappointed in the decision and will weigh our appellate options, we look forward to a prompt retrial, where we will have another opportunity to present the overwhelming evidence of Dean Skelos and Adam Skelos’s guilt and again give the public the justice it deserves.
“Cleaning up corruption is never easy,” Kim continued, “and that is certainly true for corruption in New York state government. But we are as committed as ever to doing everything we can to keep our government honest. That is what we will do in this prosecution as well.”
State Sen. Todd Kaminsky, a Democrat from Long Beach and a former federal prosecutor, won Skelos’s seat after the former majority leader’s conviction. “Today’s ruling shakes society’s faith in our justice system to the core,” Kaminsky said on Tuesday. “The lurid details underlying the case — where county contracts and legislation were traded for personal favors — were laid out for all to see, leaving the public now to wonder whether even the most brazen acts are beyond the grasp of the law.
“Today’s ruling is proof that we cannot rely solely on federal prosecutors to clean up our state’s corruption,” Kaminsky added. “We need stronger anti-corruption laws and greater powers [for] local district attorneys to enforce them now. The time for complacency and waiting for others to take on corruption must end.”
Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas also called for change in response to the ruling. “The Second Circuit’s order should not detract from the continuing need to embrace comprehensive and meaningful reforms to fortify our government contracting processes from manipulation, self-dealing and pay-to-play corruption,” Singas said in a statement. “After Dean Skelos was charged in 2015, my office thoroughly reviewed Nassau’s contracting processes and recommended the establishment of an independent inspector general and modern conflict-checking procedures to guard against corruption and abuse.
“The vulnerabilities in Nassau County government exposed by our review remain substantially unaddressed,” Singas added, “the Board of Ethics is conflicted and lacks a quorum, and the taxpayers are ill-served every day that our elected leaders fail to enact the reforms to prevent the corruption that continues to compromise public confidence in our government.”
This story will be updated.