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NYS Exposed: Taxpayers on the hook for retrials and defense of corrupt lawmakers

October 24, 2017 06:58 PM

ROCHESTER — Three of the most powerful state lawmakers in Albany were convicted of corruption and then all three convictions were thrown out, not because they were innocent but because of technicalities. Taxpayers will now have to foot the bill to retry two of them and pay for the defense of the third.

In 2016, former State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver was convicted of taking $4 million in bribes and former State Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos was convicted of bribery, extortion and conspiracy. It was a powerful statement that corruption in Albany would no longer be tolerated but less than a year later, both convictions were tossed after the Supreme Court narrowed the definition of an “official act” in a similar public corruption trial. Basically, the terminology the judge used when instructing the jury before deliberations wasn’t specific enough.

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“Even the courts, in their decision, said... 'Yeah, there's enough evidence to say they were both guilty but on a technicality we have to throw out the convictions,” says Assembly Minority leader Brian Kolb of Canandaigua.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office has promised to retry both Silver and Skelos which will likely come at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars more for taxpayers.

“There is no cost too high to pursue public corruption because if we cannot rely on the people that we elect and send to office to do the right thing and to be integrous then our entire system falls apart,” says Dennis Vacco, a former NYS Attorney General.

In 2015, former State Senate Deputy Majority Leader Tom Libous was convicted of lying to the FBI and using his clout to get his son a job. He died during the appeal process so a judge decided to dismiss the charge. Now, his estate will ask taxpayers to pay $700,000+ in legal bills and it’s likely, they’ll be able to be reimbursed.

New York’s Public Officers Law requires the state reimburse employees for “reasonable” legal fees if the charges against them are dismissed or if they’re acquitted so long as the charges related to their official work responsibilities. “It's law currently, until the law is changed it is what it is but certainly do I agree with it? No. I think if you've been charged for criminal action regardless of whether you're a public official or not, I don't think the taxpayers should be put on the hook for those costs,” Kolb says.

Elected public officials can take this one step further. They can and do use campaign money to fund their defense. "They're then getting taxpayer reimbursement personally for money they never put out,” says Blair Horner of NYPIRG. It’s one of those loopholes in a very complex campaign finance system here in New York that lawmakers have taken advantage of.

“You're not putting yourself in any sort of financial risk at all, why should you get the taxpayer dollars? They either go to a charity, to the donors or not go back at all,” Horner says.

Ultimately, it is up to the NYS Attorney General to decide what costs are “reasonable” and whether a lawmaker or any public official is eligible to get a reimbursement but precedent has been set. Back in 2014, former State Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno got a $2.5 million reimbursement check after his conviction was overturned due to a similar legal change.

It’s likely the Libous estate will get the money back. If Silver and Skelos are retried and acquitted, they too would likely make a similar request. “Hopefully, they're retried and convicted and taxpayers are not on the hook,” Kolb says.

Credits

Jennifer Lewke

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