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Former N.Y. Senate majority leader’s conviction overturned

A federal appeals court on Sept. 26 overturned bribery and other convictions of Dean Skelos, a former Republican leader of the New York State Senate. (Seth Wenig/Associated Press)

A federal appeals court on Tuesday overturned bribery and other convictions of former New York State Senate majority leader Dean Skelos, asserting that jurors were wrongly instructed in the case based on a recent Supreme Court decision that narrowed what constitutes public corruption.

In vacating the once-powerful Republican's convictions, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit pointed again to the Supreme Court's decision in the case of former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell (R).

The appeals court's ruling is another reminder of how the McDonnell case has made substantiating public corruption convictions far more difficult. Citing McDonnell, the 2nd Circuit earlier this year overturned a public corruption conviction against former New York State Assembly speaker Sheldon Silver (D). And it is possible that the precedent established could have an effect on the public corruption trial of U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.).

The Bob McDonnell effect: The bar is getting higher to prosecute public corruption cases

Skelos could be retried, the appeals court said, but based on the definition of public corruption established in the McDonnell case, his convictions could not stand. The appeals court also vacated the convictions of Skelos’s son, Adam.

Joon H. Kim, the acting U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, said that prosecutors looked forward to retrying the case and pointed to a portion of the appeals court’s decision that said the evidence may still be sufficient to win a conviction.

“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,” Kim said in a statement. “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.”

Alexandra A.E. Shapiro, Dean Skelos’s defense attorney, said: “Senator Skelos is grateful for the Court’s careful consideration of the issues and looks forward to the next steps. We believe that as events unfold it is going to become clear that this is a case that never should have been brought.”

Skelos, 69, and his son were convicted in 2015 of bribery, extortion and related counts for carrying out a variety of schemes that prosecutors said were "among the most serious public corruption crimes committed in New York State in recent memory." Dean Skelos, prosecutors said, targeted businesses that depended on state help either through legislation or contracts and forced them to pay his son hundreds of thousands of dollars for jobs where he did not actually have to work. The state lawmaker was sentenced to five years in prison. His son got 6½ years.

The Supreme Court decided McDonnell’s case in 2016, after Skelos had been found guilty. The justices vacated the governor’s conviction, also because of an improper jury instruction.

To substantiate a conviction against McDonnell, prosecutors had to prove that he performed an “official act” for a wealthy benefactor who lavished his family with gifts and loans. And jurors, the court ruled, had been given too broad a definition of what such an act could be.

The ruling effectively narrowed the definition of what constitutes an official act in a public corruption case. The Supreme Court indicated that arranging a meeting, calling another public official or hosting an event would not by themselves qualify.

The jurors in Skelos’s case had been told that his end of a corrupt bargain could include any acts “taken under color of official authority” and that they “do not need to be specifically described in any law, rule, or job description, but may also include acts customarily performed by a public official with a particular position.”