MANHATTAN (CN) — Former New York state Sen. Dean Skelos and his son have delayed lengthy corruption sentences for more than a year by pointing to a Supreme Court ruling they predict will earn them a new trial.
If sharp questions by an appellate panel Thursday are any indication, however, the New York-based Second Circuit is unwilling to let the Skeloses avoid prison based on that precedent.
The hour-long oral argument had barely begun this morning before U.S. Circuit Judge Reena Raggi accused an attorney for the disgraced senator of misrepresenting the government’s case.
“It’s just helpful that we stay focused on what [prosecutors] did and didn’t say,” Raggi said.
Alexandra Shapiro, a partner at the Manhattan firm Shapiro Arato, had accused prosecutors moments earlier of encouraging jurors to embrace an expansive theory of corruption that they knew stood on shaky legal ground.
“It’s just not so,” Raggi replied, abruptly cutting off this line of argument.
With that punch, the Skelos family’s appeal began as precipitously as the senator’s fortunes have fallen since his May 2015 indictment.
Once the New York Legislature’s most powerful Republican, Skelos sat with his son, Adam Skelos, a little more than a year ago for a federal bribery trial grounded in nepotism.
Prosecutors accused the senator of milking his political connections with the state’s heaviest donor, Glenwood Management, to score work for his son, who had been hoping for extra cashflow to cover the cost of a $600,000 apartment.
At the men’s sentencing on May 12, 2016, U.S. District Judge Kimba Wood determined that Adam Skelos was at the heart of the hustle. She gave the 33-year-old a prison term of 6 1/2 years, with a five-year sentence for his dad, and was spotted outside the courtroom today, watching the proceedings on closed-circuit television to see if those terms would stick.
Wood had noted at last year’s sentencing that a pending Supreme Court decision stood ready to rattle the corruption-law landscape.
With the Supreme Court poised to reverse the corruption conviction of former Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell, Judge Wood said: “There is a danger that the jury decided this case based on a rationale that will be rejected by the Supreme Court.”
Shapiro, attorney to the 69-year-old former senator, quoted this remark in full Thursday morning for the Second Circuit.
Unlike the father-and-son scheme at issue, McDonnell was convicted of having arranged a meeting for a donor who spent more than $175,000 on the governor, picking up the tab on both of his daughters’ weddings, as well as a Rolex for McDonnell and a Bergdoff Goodman shopping spree for his wife.
In reversing the governor’s conviction last year, the Supreme Court was unanimous that political access cannot count as a benefit in a quid pro quo, the Latin expression meaning “this for that.”
Ex-Sen. Skelos’ attorney Shapiro echoed this point for Thursday’s appellate panel. “Selling access, if you will, or granting meetings is not sufficient,” she said.
When the Supreme Court gutted the federal anti-bribery law with the McDonnell decision, sparking alarm by advocates for honest government, many legal observers believed the precedent would spring convicted politicians out of prison across the country.
Today’s hearing challenged that assumption, as the three-judge panel appeared to view the precedent as no silver bullet.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas McKay faced much more gentle questioning as he opened his arguments, laying out what he called the “three brazen schemes” of Adam and Dean Skelos.
Thanks to his father’s connection to Glenwood, Adam Skelos was connected to an Arizona contractor called AbTech.
Marketing a sponge-like filter to remove pollutants from storm water, AbTech hoped to land a contract with Long Island’s Nassau County in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. With AbTech banking on a green light for fracking in New York, the tangled web soon had Adam Skelos needling his father to set up a meeting between the company and the Department of Health.
Adam Skelos already made more than $100,000 a year from a no-show job at PRI, an insurance firm reliant upon favorable legislation from Albany.
U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein scoffed at the younger Skelos’ separate appeal, which hinges on his claim of ignorance about any official actions his father took for his employers.
“His dad coincidentally happens to be the majority leader of the senate,” said Hellerstein, sitting by designation on the federal appeals court from New York’s Southern District.
Hellerstein also unraveled an argument by attorney Robert Culp that prosecutors failed to prove what his client, Adam, knew about his father’s political dealings.
“You cannot prove intent,” Hellerstein said. “You prove it by facts through which a jury can make a reasonable inference … ‘Dad, get me a job.’”
Even Culp agreed that his client Adam Skelos probably did not get his jobs based on merit.
“Maybe because he’s the son of a senator,” he said at one point.
When the Supreme Court erased McDonnell’s conviction, Chief Justice John Roberts acknowledged that the case would have wide-reaching ripples.
“There is no doubt that this case is distasteful; it may be worse than that,” Roberts wrote in June. “But our concern is not with tawdry tales of Ferraris, Rolexes, and ball gowns.”
Shapiro, the senator’s lawyer, quoted that remark. Saying that the Second Circuit could find her client’s case “distasteful,” too, Shapiro insisted that the government gave no proof any favors to the senator affected his vote.
“The question here is, what kind of ‘quo’ counts,” she said. “There can’t be a quid pro quo without a quo.”
The panel ended the hearing without a ruling, leaving uncertain the future of the legacy of high-profile political corruption cases that New York tabloids called “Albany on Trial.”
Falling shortly after the conviction of ex-New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, former Sen. Skelos had been the second of the proverbial “Three Men in a Room” to fall in a series of corruption trials led by then-U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara.
The phrase refers to the top power brokers in New York’s capital of Albany.
The third man, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, was never charged with any offense, but his former “right-hand man” Joseph Percoco is awaiting trial on unrelated charges