2015 saw the fall of two of the three most powerful people in state government, and the rise of one US Attorney.
Less than a year ago, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Leader Dean Skelos led the legislature. They were both at Governor Cuomo’s State of the State speech on January 21, sitting on stage, where Cuomo acknowledged his partners in the government triumvirate.
“To a good year, Dean,” Cuomo said, to applause from the assembled lawmakers and lobbyists in the cavernous auditorium. “It’s a pleasure to be with you, Mr. Speaker.”
After the State of the State address, they were answering reporters’ questions on the governor’s proposals for the state budget.
“We haven’t seen the actual detailed language of what the governor is presenting,” said then-Speaker Silver.
As it turns out, the former Speaker was not around to negotiate the budget. He was arrested the very next day, on January 22nd, and a few days afterward, resigned his leadership post.
Senator Skelos was arrested in May. He said he had done nothing wrong.
“Our conference believes that I’m innocent,” Skelos said. “I know that I’m innocent.”
Skelos’ Republican conference ousted him from his leadership position within a week.
By late fall, both men were on trial. Skelos was tried, along with his son Adam, in a case that included recorded conversations, where they were portrayed in an unflattering light. In this phone call, the Skeloses lament Governor Cuomo’s ban on fracking, because they had hoped that the younger Skelos could profit from the gas drilling process.
“I just heard, I tried to get you,” the elder Skelos begins.
“Aaaaugh! this state sucks,” Adam exclaims.
“It does. It does,” Skelos answers. He then tries to reassure his son.
“We’re going to totally focus on that other thing now, OK?” Dean Skelos tells Adam Skelos.
Within two weeks of each other, Silver and the Skeloses were rapidly convicted on all counts against them.
The US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara, prosecuted both cases. Bharara spoke on WNYC’s the Brian Lehrer show just after the convictions about the need to curb lawmakers outside income. Trading private employment for political favors was a key element of both cases.
“Common sense will tell you it is much harder to disguise a bribe or a kickback as a referral, if you don’t have the ability to have the same kind of outside income,” Bharara said.
The US Attorney also would not rule out whether the third man in the triumvirate, Governor Andrew Cuomo, or his office, is under active investigation.
“I’m not going to talk about any investigations that we have open,” Bharara said. “We have lots of investigations open.”
But the US Attorney cautions, don’t read too much into that.
Governor Cuomo has promised he’ll propose major reforms in his State of the State message, scheduled for January 13th. But it’s unclear how far he will go. He says he’s somewhat hamstrung on campaign finance reform due to the US Supreme Court’s Citizen United decision that permits unlimited outside expenditures in campaigns. He says changing to a full-time legislature with no outside income will be a hard sell.
“I spoke about it last year, there was no appetite to do it in the legislature,” Cuomo said. “I’m going to keep pushing, but you need a constitutional change to do it.”
The New York Public Interest Research Group’s Blair Horner, who’s been a reform lobbyist for nearly three decades, says it’s really going to be up to Cuomo whether change occurs at the Capitol.
“I’ve been working on this stuff for a long time, it’s almost always the executive that drives reform,” Horner said. “And in the absence of the executive driving reform, nothing happens.”
Horner says, after all, when Cuomo was first elected, he promised to restore the public trust.