The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to impose higher standards for federal prosecutors who charge public officials with wrongdoing in 2016 was a blow to good government.
But the court’s ruling in the case of Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell did perform an important public service: it gave us a retrial of former state Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and a second look at how government in New York works.
In fact, Skelos and his son, Adam, serve as a kind of how-to-succeed-in-business-without-really-trying guide for state officials. At least, up until the part of their getting indicted.
Start with getting elected state Senate majority leader.
While simply getting elected to the state Legislature in New York currently offers many opportunities for mischief, being elected state Senate majority leader makes you one of the so-called three men in a room who routinely make the final decision on most important state matters.
And from there the opportunities grow exponentially.
Not so coincidentally, a second person in the room during Skelos’ time as state Senate majority leader – former House Speaker Sheldon Silver – was recently convicted a second time for public corruption.
According to prosecutors, Skelos used his position and votes to help his son Adam get jobs and other work from Glenwood Management, a New Hyde Park-based real estate developer, Physicians’ Reciprocal, a Roslyn-based medical malpractice insurer, and an environmental company seeking to do business with Nassau County.
Skelos testified last week that Adam had “certain issues” he was dealing with and he was doing what any good dad would do.
With the help of his dad, the state Senate majority leader, Adam got work from two companies that allowed him to earn $145,513 in 2010.
That income grew to $441,099 in 2013. This included a $20,000 payment from a Glenwood-linked title insurer, $68,000 in consulting fees paid by another firm partially owned by Glenwood executives and $74,120 from a low-show job from Physicians Reciprocal.
Though he cast votes on behalf of all three businesses worth millions of dollars, Skelos said his votes had nothing to do with them giving his son work.
Glenwood executive Charles Dorego said he thought otherwise. He testified that Dean Skelos’ request for help intensified over a two-year period that coincided with the state Legislature voting on real estate legislation important to them.
Dorego previously testified that the company reaped an estimated $50 million to $100 million in savings over an unspecified period from one state program alone, a real estate tax-abatement law called 421-a, for luxury office buildings.
The law’s continued renewal, he said, was an “absolute necessity” for Glenwood.
Anthony Bonomo, a Manhasset resident who formerly headed Physicians’ Reciprocal, said he didn’t dare fire younger Skelos, despite his poor working performance, for fear of alienating his father: the state Senate majority leader.
This poor performance, his supervisor testified, included responding to the question of why he was not showing up to work, by saying ” ‘Guys like you don’t amount to anything. And if you talk to me like that again, I’ll smash your [expletive] head in.’”
Skelos also asked Physicians’ Reciprocal to direct some of its court-reporting work to his daughter in-law, prosecutors said.
But Skelos was not just looking out for family members.
Like virtually every state official, Skelos was the beneficiary of a state campaign finance system dominated by a loophole for limited liability corporations that allows them to make virtually unlimited campaign contributions.
Scholars may debate whether this system is legal bribery, extortion or both, but it proved especially helpful when Dean Skelos was indicted and need of legal help.
Skelos spent more than $1.6 million given to him by campaign contributors to battle charges of bribery, extortion and conspiracy in the first trial. All perfectly legal, mind you.
And before he was indicted, Skelos earned up to $150,000 a year at Ruskin Moscou Faltischek, a Uniondale law firm with a lobbying arm that had landed millions of dollars in state grants and contracts, Newsday reported.
What was Skelos doing for his salary? Good question.
Skelos, who was also earning $120,000 a year as state Senate majority leader, was the only lawyer on the law firm’s website who didn’t list a specialty, Newsday reported. Or offer details on what he did there or how he avoided conflicts of interest.
Skelos testified Monday he was basically paid for his prestige.
Even if Skelos is convicted a second time he will not be without income.
He will receive $95,831 a year until he dies under his state pension.
The Legislature voted to prevent legislators convicted of political corruption from receiving their pensions in 2011. But Skelos and Silver were exempted because they were elected before the law passed.
Good work if you can get it. Bad if you are a taxpayer and have to pay for it.