The Charges: Skelos vs. Silver

At first glance, the separate criminal cases against former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former state Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and his son, Adam, have many similarities. Both involve federal corruption charges against top public officials—alleging they used their power for profit. And both cases appear to be strong, according to legal analysts.

“The totality of the case is what really makes it a nightmare for Skelos,” said Eugene O’Donnell, a lecturer at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “If you break it down into pieces then you have a better chance of showing some innocent motive or some misunderstanding. But the sum total is damning.”

And back in January, O’Donnell told City & State that the chances of the case against Silver collapsing are “unlikely.”

“It’s very hard to pick these cases apart because they are in their totality,” O’Donnell said. “And beyond the criminal stuff, fairly or unfairly, there is a stench about the whole idea that you would use a public office like this. It’s sleazy political scheming that gets them convicted, rather than criminality—and they’re not necessarily the same things.”

According to Jennifer Rodgers, executive director of the Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity at Columbia Law School, if prosecutors in the Skelos case “prove what they say they’re going to prove, it looks pretty solid.”

“The conduct as alleged in the complaint appears to fall squarely within the legal language of the statutes charged,” Rodgers said. “So if the government proves what it currently says it is going to prove, the case looks pretty solid,” she said.

But the similarities of the cases only go so far, according to Rodgers. The Silver indictment involves an alleged case of quid pro quo for personal enrichment, while the complaint against Skelos depicts a father abusing his position of power in order to support a deadbeat son. And while good-government groups may see the Silver case as a textbook example of why state lawmakers should not be allowed to hold private-sector jobs, the nature of the Skelos case is a lot harder to pin down.

“Reformers have proposed restrictions or an outright ban on outside income in the wake of the recent scandals,” Rodgers said. “But the interesting thing is that Skelos is not an outside income case in the traditional sense, because he is alleged to have traded influence for income for his son, not himself. So outside income reform wouldn’t have helped here. In order to catch the Skelos conduct, the laws would have to require full disclosure of income for a lawmaker’s adult, non-dependent child, which goes beyond even the broadest proposed reforms.”

The complaint against Skelos alleges that the then-Senate majority leader sought to pressure companies to give business to his son in exchange for favorable treatment from the state. Rodgers notes that though the complaint also contains a reference to over $2 million the elder Skelos received from a law firm for which he did little to no work, the case against him is not built upon allegations of using a public office for personal enrichment.

“They clearly were looking at outside income in the Skelos investigation,” Rodgers said. “But that’s a very tough case to make. The government would have to show, per the (U.S.) Supreme Court’s rulings, that there was a quid pro quo—that is, that Skelos took specific action in exchange for the money he received. The government has alleged this in the Silver case but did not do so here, which I suspect means that they weren’t able to make the required link between the money and Skelos’s actions.

Yet if both cases are as solid as people seem to think they are, the outcome for Silver and Skelos could be similar.

Both Silver and Skelos have maintained their innocence, but Rodgers’ “back-of-the-envelope” calculation predicts Skelos facing 97 to 121 months in prison if convicted, and Silver facing 70 to 87 months.