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New York's Political Corruption Scandal Opens Door To Reform

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Over the last few decades, scandals have wiped out a generation of political leaders in New York. Eliot Spitzer in 2008, Anthony Weiner in 2011. And just this afternoon, Dean Skelos, one of the state's most powerful legislators, was found guilty in the latest of a series of federal corruption trials. Brian Mann of North Country Public Radio reports that there are still two big questions about how this conviction might bring reform and who might be next.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: I'm standing outside the federal courthouse in Lower Manhattan, and over the past couple of months, New York state's political culture and the notorious culture of the state capital, in Albany, they've been on trial here. And what the public has seen under this magnifying glass has been ugly. I can't play you any of the sound from inside the courtroom. That's not allowed. But I can play you some of the audio from the federal wiretap used in this latest corruption probe.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DEAN SKELOS: Right now we are in dangerous times, Adam.

MANN: That's State Senator Dean Skelos talking to his son, Adam. Until a few months ago, Skelos, a Republican, dominated the state senate. Nothing moved without his OK. Now he's facing prison time after being found guilty of federal corruption charges. An appeal is likely. Prosecutors say because the father and son knew an investigation was underway, they grew cautious, using disposable burner phones and speaking in a kind of code about their efforts to squeeze companies and government officials.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

D. SKELOS: We're going to totally focus on that other thing now, OK?

ADAM SKELOS: Yeah.

D. SKELOS: I'm going to now refocus on a lot of other things with you. OK, pal?

A. SKELOS: All right.

MANN: Jurors today agreed with federal prosecutors that the wiretaps revealed the senator promising to use his influence to benefit his son, arranging contracts and kickbacks worth tens of thousands of dollars.

SUSAN LERNER: It's really been shocking to actually hear the recordings.

MANN: Susan Lerner heads a government reform group called Common Cause New York.

LERNER: Everybody has suspicions about how bad things could be, but it's very startling and somewhat disheartening to hear your worst suspicions confirmed.

MANN: The man bringing this case was U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who just last month won a conviction in a separate corruption trial against one of New York's top Democrats, the speaker of the state assembly.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PREET BHARARA: You do the tedious hard work of, every day, looking at every document, making sure you're connecting all the right dots, making sure you're looking at where the money is going. You could make these cases.

MANN: Bharara was speaking there to students at New York University. He's urged politicians in New York state to take up serious ethics reform to prevent these kinds of abuses. But after so many years of crooked dealing, a lot of people doubt Albany will clean itself up. They point to the fact the governor Andrew Cuomo abruptly shut down a commission last year that was supposed to investigate corruption. Speaking after the conviction of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, one of his close political allies, Cuomo suggested that enough safeguards are in place.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANDREW CUOMO: If you violate the law, you will get caught.

MANN: Critics don't buy it. They point out that it took an organized crime-style investigation complete with wiretaps, informants and stakeouts to bring these cases to light. Susan Lerner with Common Cause New York says the latest scandals have left her with two gut feelings about New York politics.

LERNER: Boundless outrage and significant hope that things will change.

MANN: Lerner thinks public outrage might finally force lawmakers to improve transparency and cut the flow of outside cash to politicians. She also points out that Bharara's office has continued to issue subpoenas. A big question here, Lerner says, is whether the federal probe will extend to Governor Cuomo himself. Bharara has said repeatedly he plans to keep connecting dots and following the money. For NPR News, I'm Brian Mann in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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