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L.I. congressman seeks to close corruption loophole with new bill after Dean Skelos conviction tossed

September 27, 2017

By: 

Kenneth Lovett
New York Daily News

ALBANY — A Long Island congressman Wednesday announced legislation designed to make it easier for prosecutors to attack public corruption.

The bill announced by Rep. Thomas Suozzi (D-Nassau County) came a day after disgraced former state Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos became the latest of the state’s top elected officials to have their federal corruption convictions overturned.

“We can’t allow corruption convictions to be overturned based on legal technicalities,” Suozzi said.

The Close Official Acts Loophole Act has bipartisan support and is co-sponsored by Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), who once served as an FBI supervisory special agent dealing with political corruption.

The legislation is designed to address a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that made it tougher to bring corruption cases by narrowing the legal definition of what is considered an official action.

In 2016, the court threw out the conviction of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, who was charged with accepting $175,000 in loans and gifts from a businessman, including a Rolex watch and $20,000 in clothing for his wife.

In exchange, McDonnell arranged meetings for the businessman and helped promote his dietary supplement.

But in its decision, the Supreme Court ruled that because any constituent can ask for a representative to set up a meeting, it did not meet the definition of an official action taken by McDonnell in exchange for the gifts.

As a result of the ruling, the federal convictions of Skelos and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver in separate corruption cases were overturned, even though the two former New York officials were found guilty before the Supreme Court ruled in the McDonnell case.

Suozzi’s bill would expand the legal definition of an official action by borrowing existing language from federal conflict of interest statutes and regulations.

Suozzi said his bill would change the definition of official act to include any “personal and substantial participation through, for example, approval, disapproval, recommendation, rendering of advice on, or investigation of, any question” related to government functions.

Setting up a meeting would fall under such a definition, he said.

The still-guilty Skeloses will be tried again
Suozzi said that on its own, there’s nothing wrong with setting up meetings for friends, donors or constituents. It’s when such meetings are in exchange for personal gifts like the ones received by McDonnell.

“It’s the quid pro quo — the idea that you’re setting up the meeting or you’re taking these actions in exchange for some kind of personal gift,” he said.

Campaign contributions would not be covered.

Suozzi — who in 2006 unsuccessfully ran for the Democratic nomination for governor on a “fix Albany” agenda — said his bill, if passed, would not impact Skelos or Silver, but would cover corruption cases moving forward.