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Top NY lawmaker clings to power after corruption charges

Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, R-Rockville Centre, arrives at his office at the Capitol in Albany, N.Y., on Monday, May 4, 2015. (AP Photo/Tim Roske)

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — The leader of the state Senate defiantly dismissed a federal criminal complaint against him as “nothing more than a press release” on Tuesday and vowed to keep his position even as more of his fellow Republicans called for him to step down.

A day after his arrest on corruption charges, Dean Skelos said he will fight the allegations while leading the Senate as it heads into the final weeks of the legislative session.

Some GOP senators, however, publicly called for Skelos to step down as leader, saying the Senate can’t afford the distraction.

“Dean should resign. He should step aside,” said Sen. John Bonacic, R-Orange County. “There is a presumption of innocence. But will this impair our ability to get our work done?”

Skelos, who’s from Long Island, was charged Monday with extortion and soliciting bribes. The office of U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said the veteran lawmaker traded his influence for more than $200,000 in payments from a real estate firm and an environmental technology company that went to his son Adam Skelos, who also is charged in the case.

Skelos, 67, said he would fight the charges “aggressively.” He said of his son, 32: “He worked hard. Did a good job. He shouldn’t be penalized because of the title (his) father has.”

Skelos’ arrest comes four months after Bharara’s office charged former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Manhattan Democrat, with taking nearly $4 million in payoffs.

Silver, who also is fighting the charges, initially tried to hold onto the speakership but relinquished the position after Assembly Democrats threatened to oust him.

Now it’s the Senate Republicans’ turn to feel the heat. They met behind closed doors Monday night to discuss the criminal charges before announcing that Skelos would stay on as leader. On Tuesday, however, there were signs that support for the veteran lawmaker may be flagging.

“I do not believe Senator Skelos can effectively lead our chamber,” said Sen. Rob Ortt, R-North Tonawanda. “The functioning of the state Senate, and our state government, requires a leader whose sole focus is on the needs of New Yorkers.”

Democrats in the Senate had called for Skelos to step down as leader the day he was arrested.

Two big issues confronting lawmakers could pose particular challenges for Skelos: New York City’s rent regulations and a tax break for developers of Manhattan real estate are set to expire next month.

The criminal complaint alleges that Skelos promoted and voted for legislation sought by the real estate development company, including some pertaining to rent regulation and property tax abatements.

The charges against Skelos have prompted renewed calls for ethics and campaign finance reform.

“There is absolutely no excuse now,” said Susan Lerner, executive director of the government watchdog group Common Cause-New York.

If lawmakers adjourn the session without taking up measures to close some of the ethics loopholes highlighted in the criminal complaint against Skelos, she said, “it will be a spit in the face of the public.”

But even if some Republicans may want to replace Skelos soon, no consensus candidate has emerged for the job. The Senate’s No. 2 Republican, Sen. Thomas Libous, of Binghamton, is battling cancer and has pleaded not guilty to a federal charge that he lied to the FBI about using his clout to arrange a job for his son, who was convicted this year of filing false income tax returns.

There are other practical concerns: The GOP holds only a one-seat majority in the Senate. Libous has missed much of the session because of his health, and his presence might be necessary for any vote to replace Skelos as leader.

Skelos, who has represented his Nassau County district in the Senate for 30 years, said there’s no reason why his legal difficulties should pose a distraction. He was critical of those within his party who have called for him to step down — a group that includes Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, the party’s unsuccessful nominee for governor in 2014.

“Sometimes some Republicans have nothing to do but complain,” Skelos said.

Skelos is the seventh top lawmaker to face criminal charges in the past six years. Since 2000, 29 New York lawmakers have left office because of criminal or ethical issues.

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