Ex-New York Senate leader Skelos, son have convictions tossed

NEW YORK (WABC) -- The corruption convictions of former state Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and his son, Adam, have been overturned, months after a similar decision to vacate the conviction of Sheldon Silver.

Both decisions, from the three judge U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, cite last year's U.S. Supreme Court decision that narrowed the legal definition of corruption.

The Supreme Court decision involved former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell.

"We identify charging error in light of McDonnell v. United States, which was decided after this case was tried," the court wrote. "Because we cannot conclude that the charging error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt, we are obliged to vacate the convictions."

The ruling came less than three months after the same court reversed former state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver's separate corruption conviction on the same grounds. Together, the cases brought about the downfall of the state's two most powerful lawmakers. Skelos is a Republican, Silver a Democrat.
Federal prosecutors will retry the case.

"The Second Circuit, while finding that the evidence was more than sufficient to convict Dean and Adam Skelos, held that a part of the jury instruction is no longer good law under the Supreme Court decision in McDonnell," Acting U.S. attorney Joon Kim said in a statement. "While we are disappointed in the decision and will weigh our appellate options, we look forward to a prompt retrial where we will have another opportunity to present the overwhelming evidence of Dean Skelos and Adam Skelos's guilt and again give the public the justice it deserves. Cleaning up corruption is never easy, and that is certainly true for corruption in New York State government. But we are as committed as ever to doing everything we can to keep our government honest. That is what we will do in this prosecution as well."

Dean Skelos' lawyer, Alexandra Shapiro, said the former senator is grateful "for the court's careful consideration of the issues" and looked forward to the next steps in the case.

"We believe that as events unfold, it is going to become clear that this is a case that never should have been brought," she said in a statement. Adam Skelos' attorney didn't immediately respond to a telephone message.

Prosecutors said Dean Skelos strong-armed three companies into giving his son $300,000. Father and son were convicted in 2015 of extortion, conspiracy and bribery in one of a series of corruption cases that roiled the state.

Dean Skelos was sentenced to five years in prison. His son got 6 1/2 years. Both remain free on appeal.

Tuesday's ruling hinged on a 2016 Supreme Court decision tightening rules on what constitutes an "official act" by a public official, saying that merely setting up meetings, calling other public officials or hosting an event do not necessarily qualify as an "official act" taken in return for money or services received. The ruling reversed a jury verdict against former Virginia Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell.

A growing list of politicians - including Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey and others - have used the ruling to try to win a new trial or force an end to their prosecutions.

Dean Skelos, an attorney, was first elected to the Legislature in 1980 and served in the state Senate for more than three decades. He and Silver once epitomized Albany's backroom political culture by hammering out deals on the state budget and legislation in closed-door negotiating sessions with Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Over 30 New York state lawmakers have left office under a cloud of criminal or ethical allegations since 2000. More than a dozen have been convicted of charges including authorizing bribes to get on a ballot, diverting money meant for community programs into a campaign and skimming funds from contributions to a Little League baseball program.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report)
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