NEW YORK (AP) — The leader of the New York Senate was arrested Monday on charges including extortion and soliciting bribes after investigators looking into the awarding of a $12 million contract to a company that hired his son said they captured him on wiretaps boasting of his power.
Republican Dean Skelos, 67, and his 32-year-old son, Adam, both of Rockville Centre on Long Island, surrendered at the FBI’s offices in lower Manhattan as a criminal complaint was unsealed against them in federal court.
After a brief appearance before a magistrate judge, they were ordered to turn over their passports and were released.
Dean Skelos said outside court: “I have the utmost respect for our judges and our juries and that’s why I will be found innocent and my son will.”
His son did not comment, but Christopher Conniff, a lawyer, said in an email that Adam Skelos “is not guilty of these charges and looks forward to fighting them in the courtroom.”
At a news conference, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara alleged that Dean Skelos’ “support for certain infrastructure projects and legislation was often based, not on what was good for his constituents or good for New York, but rather on what was good for his son’s bank account.”
The charges roiled the Legislature. Democrats in the Senate immediately called for Skelos’ resignation as leader while the Senate Republican conference met privately to discuss his fate.
Speaking for the GOP conference, Sen. Kenneth LaValle, R-Long Island, said there was a “strong consensus” in favor of keeping Skelos as leader.
“Presumption of innocence — this conference strongly believes in that,” LaValle told reporters. “He would like to remain as leader and he has the support of the conference.”
Authorities said Dean Skelos — New York state’s most powerful Republican official — has used his position as a carrot since at least 2010, taking official actions in return for payments to his son that topped $200,000.
According to court papers, some evidence was obtained through court-authorized 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 over 80 years in prison.
The complaint said Dean Skelos bragged to his son recently in one conversation after he was re-elected majority leader in January, a post he shared with another senator from 2011 to 2013: “I’m going to be president of the Senate. I’m going to be majority leader. I’m going to control everything.”
The charges were unveiled four months after former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, was charged with accepting nearly $4 million in payoffs. Silver, maintaining his innocence, gave up his leadership post but is keeping his legislative seat as he fights the charges. Earlier this month, Silver’s son-in-law was charged in a $7 million Ponzi scheme.
Bharara, who has called Albany a “cauldron of corruption,” told a news conference that the case was 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.”
But the prosecutor also appeared more cautious with his remarks in the wake of a ruling by a federal judge recently that criticized him for overdoing the publicity surrounding Silver’s January arrest.
“Let me emphasize at the outset that these are only charges,” he said. “The complaint contains allegations only, and both defendants are absolutely presumed innocent unless and until those allegations are proven beyond a reasonable doubt, which is what we intend to do.”
The complaint said Dean Skelos used his position to extort money from others, including hundreds of thousands of dollars from a senior executive of a major real estate development firm who was cooperating with the government.
Dean Skelos promoted and voted for real estate legislation sought by the developer, including some pertaining to rent regulation and property tax abatements, the complaint said.
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.
Skelos said last month he was cooperating fully and would not resign his leadership post.
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 2013 contract to Arizona-based AbTech Industries.
Lisa Linden, a company spokeswoman, said AbTech is cooperating.
“Today’s charges do not detract in any way from AbTech’s innovative work and the unique, environmentally-beneficial solutions it provides to protect our water resources,” she said.
Adam Skelos worked for the company as a consultant. The complaint said AbTech, which was only identified as an “Environmental Technology Company,” more than doubled its monthly payment to Adam Skelos after the $12 million contract was approved.
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.
Another top Senate leader, Sen. Thomas Libous, R-Binghamton, 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.