A former state Senate leader and his son were granted new trials Tuesday in a corruption case that roiled a scandal-ridden statehouse. The New York lawmaker is the latest in a series of powerful politicians whose convictions unraveled because of a recent Supreme Court decision.
A federal appeals court found jurors in ex-Sen. Dean Skelos and son Adam Skelos' case were wrongly instructed, in light of a Supreme Court decision following their 2015 convictions. The high court ruling narrowed the definition on what it takes to convict an official of corruption.
"Because we cannot conclude that the (instruction) error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt, we are obliged to vacate the convictions," the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals wrote, less than three months after reversing former state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver's separate corruption conviction on the same grounds.
Together, the cases put New York's political culture on trial and brought about the downfall of the state's two most powerful lawmakers. Skelos is a Republican, Silver a Democrat.
Prosecutors said they would assess their appeal options but looked forward to retrying the Skelos case.
"We will have another opportunity to present the overwhelming evidence of Dean Skelos and Adam Skelos' guilt and again give the public the justice it deserves," acting Manhattan U.S. Attorney Joon Kim said. He noted that the appeals court had found there was enough evidence to convict the two.
Dean Skelos' lawyer, Alexandra Shapiro, said the former senator is grateful "for the court's careful consideration of the issues."
"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. Adam Skelos' attorney, Robert Culp, said he was "very gratified" by the decision.
Prosecutors said Dean Skelos badgered companies that needed his legislative support and political sway to funnel more than $300,000 to his son, through consulting work, a no-show job and a payment of $20,000.
In a recorded phone call, the senator coached his son to be discreet because they were in "dangerous times" amid the state capital's ongoing corruption scandal.
The defense argued that prosecutors offered no proof that Skelos changed his positions on legislation to reward the businesses and that the government was twisting a father-son relationship into a crime.
The father and son were convicted of extortion, conspiracy and bribery. Dean Skelos was sentenced to five years in prison. His son got 6½ years. Both remained 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 Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican.
A growing list of politicians - including Democratic former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich and Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey - have used the ruling to try to win a new trial or force an end to their prosecutions.
In the Skelos case, jurors were told that an "official act" can encompass "acts customarily performed by a public official," including those that further long-term goals or are only steps toward achieving some outcome - language that the Supreme Court later found wasn't specific enough.
But the appeals court also said there was "abundant" evidence that the senator traded his legislative vote for benefits for his son.
Dean Skelos, an attorney, was first elected to New York's 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 Democratic 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.
Associated Press writer David Klepper in Albany, New York, contributed to this report.