ALBANY — While many critics were blaming the U.S. Supreme Court for ex-Sen. Dean Skelos’s conspiracy conviction being vacated Tuesday, others were pointing at federal prosecutors.
The former has too narrowly limited definitions of legal corruption, they said. The latter erred in not recognizing this when they launched a case against the long-time Long Island power broker.
“On the one hand, many people are going to be very upset, thinking: ‘These corrupt public officials are getting away with it,’” said Vincent Bonventre, an Albany Law School professor. “On the other hand, prosecutors were arguing that all sorts of conduct were illegal when they weren’t illegal at all. They definitely erred and the trial judge went along with it.”
At issue was a decision by a federal appeals court to vacate the conviction of Skelos, who led the state Senate in 2008 and again from 2011 until when he was charged in 2015, as well as his son, Adam, saying the trial judge gave improperly broad instructions to the jury about what constituted “official acts” and an official’s “honest services.”
A jury had convicted the Skeloses of conspiracy, fraud and bribery in connection with government contracts and a no-show job for Adam.
But even while the Skelos trial was ongoing, there were signals that the U.S. Supreme Court was likely to tighten definition of the federal honest services statute and force prosecutors to demonstrate a clear quid pro quo to win convictions, observers said. That, in fact, happened when the nation’s top court ruled in a case involving former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell that only formal and concrete government actions could be used as a basis for a corruption prosecution. The appeals court cited the McDonnell case in vacating Skelos’s conviction and ordering a new trial.
That decision came as no surprise because it followed a ruling along the same lines months earlier vacating the corruption conviction of ex-Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.
Then-U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who prosecuted the Silver and Skelos cases, took to Twitter Tuesday to say the U.S. Supreme Court “made it harder to punish corruption, but justice should prevail here.” Last year, following the McDonnell ruling, Bharara’s office expressed confidence that its cases against Silver and Skelos would “fall squarely within the definition” set by the top court.
Others pointed the finger at the Supreme Court, essentially saying it handcuffed prosecutors.
A “deep failure to understand” corruption cases, said Zephyr Teachout, a former Democratic candidate for governor and Congress and author of a political corruption book. “Justice ripped” from New Yorkers’ fingers “yet again by a technicality,” said Brandon Muir of Reclaim New York. A ruling that “shakes society’s faith in our justice system,” said Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach), a former assistant federal prosecutor and Skelos’ successor in the Senate.