Latest New York Corruption Cases Highlight Patronage Claims

By | July 27, 2015

It’s a practice seemingly as old as politics itself: top elected officials finding jobs for their wayward sons.

The criminal cases against men who used to be two of New York’s most powerful lawmakers both hinge on allegations they took part in a time-honored tradition of nepotism.

Prosecutors say Sens. Dean Skelos, who was Senate majority leader, and Thomas Libous, his deputy, both helped their sons get or hold high-salaried positions in exchange for favorable influence.

The sons are accused of behaving badly in those jobs. Prosecutors say Matthew Libous drunkenly propositioned his new boss’ wife, while Adam Skelos made clear to his employers that he didn’t have to show up for work — and even threatened to “smash in” his boss’ head.

“It’s like a Shakespearean reference, the ungrateful children,” said Jim Cohen, who teaches legal ethics at Fordham University Law School. “I think there’s substantial doubt these two could have done this on their own and that’s why their fathers intervened.”

Indeed, federal authorities contend both sons needed the help from their powerful fathers.

A criminal complaint said Adam Skelos “has been dependent on his father for financial support” since at least 2010, and that Dean Skelos brought up his son’s money woes in steering him — in exchange for influence — toward jobs that he either never did or for which he wasn’t qualified.

Prosecutors in Thomas Libous’ trial argued that Matthew Libous, a lawyer, would not have been hired at the White Plains law firm — at $60,000 more than senior attorneys at the firm — had it not been for his father’s influence and the promise he would send the firm business.

“Why would you hire anyone who got drunk at the holiday party and propositioned the senior partner’s wife?” assistant US attorney James McMahon asked jurors in closing arguments.

Thomas Libous, a Binghamton Republican, lost his Senate seat when he was convicted on July 22 of lying to the FBI about his involvement in his son’s hiring to a $150,000-a-year job. His son was charged separately and convicted of tax crimes; he denies misbehaving with his boss’ wife.

The case against Skelos, a Long Island Republican, is pending and both father and son have pleaded not guilty to extortion, bribery and other charges.

Both of the Skeloses and their lawyers declined to speak after their arraignment, but a website set up to collect donations for their defense declares the case “politically motivated.” It also says, “It’s wrong to criminalize the relationship between a father and son.”

In an expanded indictment filed last week, prosecutors say Adam Skelos got a $78,000 per year job with a malpractice insurance company that was lobbying his father. Once there, the court papers say, the younger Skelos threatened his boss and told him he didn’t have to show up for work regularly because of who his father was.

New York, in particular, has a rich history of such patronage. For long periods in the 19th and 20th centuries, the political organization known as Tammany Hall kept a grip on patronage by closely aligning with the Democratic party and catering to the quickly multiplying immigrant population, especially the Irish. It was a major source of jobs that did not weaken until Mayor Fiorello La Guardia took office in 1934.

Political experts noted that powerful fathers get jobs for their children all the time in the private sector but the difference in political patronage situations is that if things don’t work out, firings are rare.

“In politics, the way to get ahead is by helping people out, especially the people you trust, the people you want around you, and of course the people who give campaign contributions,” said Eugene O’Donnell, a law professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a former prosecutor. “Your family is an extension of this.”

Politicians may even get “spousal pressure,” he added. “What’s the use of having this big job if your son has to go to the back of the line?”‘ he said.

And prosecuting such cases can be tricky, said Maurice Carroll, the assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Poll. After all, a jury might be able to relate to what a defendant is accused of doing.

“I’m not sure jurors would see it as runaway entitlement so much as just helping your kid,” he said. “Is that so bad?”


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