ALBANY, N.Y. — The arrest of a powerful New York lawmaker on federal corruption charges threw one of America’s most powerful statehouses into disarray, destabilizing the state’s Senate while complicating an already contentious legislative agenda.
Senate leader Dean Skelos, 67, of Long Island, was charged May 4 with extortion and soliciting bribes. Authorities say Skelos traded his influence as the state’s most powerful Republican to arrange payments for his son Adam Skelos, 32, who also was charged. Both men said they are innocent.
It’s the second time in four months a top legislative leader has been arrested by federal investigators: In January, Democrat Sheldon Silver resigned as Assembly Speaker following charges that he accepted nearly $4 million in payoffs.
According to U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, whose office is prosecuting both Silver and Skelos, the charges against Skelos are further proof that “public corruption is a deep-seated problem in New York state. It is a problem in both chambers. It is a problem on both sides of the aisle.”
Members of the Senate’s GOP conference gathered behind closed doors to discuss Skelos’ political future. Afterward, Sen. Kenneth LaValle, R-Long Island, said there was a “strong consensus” in favor of keeping Skelos as their leader through the remainder of the session.
“We have a number of issues that we are going to address,” LaValle told reporters. “We have 5½ weeks left in the session and we are going to get focused.”
Lawmakers hope to end their session next month after voting on whether to renew or modify New York City’s rent regulations and a tax break given to developers of Manhattan real estate. The nature of the charges against Skelos could make those discussions even more combustible.
Authorities said the legislative veteran traded his influence to extort money from others with business before the state, including hundreds of thousands of dollars from a senior executive of a major real estate development firm who was cooperating with the government.
The money was paid to Adam Skelos, authorities said, with the expectation that Dean Skelos would use his position to support the developer’s legislative priorities.
After a brief court appearance in New York City, the two men were ordered to turn over their passports and released.
“I have the utmost respect for our judges and our juries and that’s why I will be found innocent and my son will,” Dean Skelos said afterward.
Dean Skelos promoted and voted for real estate legislation sought by the developer, including some pertaining to rent regulation and property tax abatements, according to a criminal complaint.
The complaint said Skelos, an attorney, has been paid over $2.6 million since 1994 by a law firm for which he did not appear to perform actual legal work, but instead was paid to refer clients and meet with them about legislative matters.
According to court papers, some evidence was obtained through wiretaps on cellphones used by the father and son to support charges including three counts of extortion, two counts of soliciting bribes and one count of conspiracy to commit honest services fraud. The charges carried a potential penalty of more than 80 years in prison.
The complaint said Dean Skelos bragged to his son in one conversation after he was re-elected majority leader in January: “I’m going to be President of the Senate. I’m going to be Majority Leader. I’m going to control everything.”
Prosecutors said that after Silver’s arrest, Adam Skelos obtained a so-called burner phone that could not be traced to him to speak to one of the government sources.
They said Dean Skelos caused the cancellation of a meeting his son had arranged to further the scheme, telling him in an intercepted call: “Right now we are in dangerous times, Adam.”
The probe focused in part on whether Skelos influenced Nassau County’s decision to award a $12 million contract to Arizona-based AbTech Industries in 2013. Adam Skelos worked for the company as a consultant; investigators claim his monthly pay more than doubled after the contract was approved.
Lisa Linden, a company spokeswoman, said AbTech is cooperating.
Alan Levine, lawyer for Glenwood Management, the real estate development firm cited in the court papers, declined to comment.
Republicans hold a slim majority in the Senate, and GOP members said they were carefully considering whether to keep Skelos on as leader.
“The Senate will have to assess and consider any and all options,” Sen. Joseph Griffo, R-Oneida County.
Dean Skelos has represented a portion of Nassau County on Long Island in the state Senate since he was elected in 1984. He was elected to the Assembly in 1980.
An attorney, Skelos is known as a shrewd negotiator and a frequent ally to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat. He is the seventh top lawmaker to face criminal charges in the past six years. Since 2000, 29 New York lawmakers have left office because of criminal or ethical issues.
There is no clear consensus as to who would replace Skelos should he step down as leader. The Senate’s No. 2 Republican, Sen. Thomas Libous of Binghamton, is battling cancer and has pleaded not guilty to a federal charge that he lied to the FBI about using his clout to arrange a job for his son, who was convicted earlier this year of filing false income tax returns.
By David Klepper and Michael Virtanen. AP writers Larry Neumeister and Tom Hays in New York and John Kekis in Albany contributed