In separate federal courthouses in Lower Manhattan this month, two of the most powerful men in New York are about to go on trial, an extraordinary spectacle centering on allegations of corruption, bribery and nepotism in the state’s highest chambers of political power.
But even as the men, Assemblyman Sheldon Silver, the former speaker, and State Senator Dean G. Skelos, the former majority leader, fight the charges and try to restore their reputations, something else will also be on trial: the culture of Albany, the state capital.
Court papers in the two cases suggest that testimony in Federal District Court will expose in granular detail what watchdog groups say is a seamy world where big money and politics have long intersected with government.
There are accounts of kickbacks disguised as legitimate income; no-show jobs for a lawmaker’s son; and the use of state money to influence a doctor to refer clients to a favored law firm that, in turn, paid millions of dollars to a lawmaker.
The alleged acts are typical of a culture, according to the watchdog groups, that has made Albany practically synonymous with corruption and stubbornly resistant to reform, keeping citizens — and even most lawmakers — in the dark about much of the legislative work and spending done in their names.
For more than two decades, Mr. Silver and, for a lesser period, Mr. Skelos, have presided over the machinery making up, along with the governor, the so-called three men in a room who have historically controlled much of the state’s policy and legislative and budgeting decisions.
The two trials — Mr. Silver’s case is to begin on Monday with jury selection, and the case against Mr. Skelos, who is going on trial with his son, Adam, is scheduled to start on Nov. 16 — could run as long as six weeks each, so they will probably overlap for about a month. Never before have two lawmakers of their stature gone on trial at the same time in New York.
The trials come after roughly 18 months of intensive investigations by a large team of federal prosecutors in Manhattan, their investigators and agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. They zeroed in not only on Mr. Silver, a Democrat, and Mr. Skelos, a Republican, but also on up to a dozen other lawmakers from both parties. Some of those inquiries are still underway.
This focus on Albany has already had a chilling effect in the Capitol and contributed to what was an anemic legislative session this year. Some lawmakers said this occurred, in part, because of their concern that investigators may view the normal, transactional nature of politics in Albany as crimes of corruption. And some lawmakers complain privately that the federal scrutiny has tainted the state’s many honest public servants.
The arrests of Mr. Silver and Mr. Skelos, in January and May, also refreshed perennial calls to clean up Albany — just as a spate of lawmaker arrests did in 2013, prompting Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to form an anti-corruption commission. Yet this year’s session ended with the enactment of reforms that government watchdogs said fell short. Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat, said in July that he felt his administration had “proposed every ethics law imaginable,” and, ultimately, his administration could not legislate morality or intelligence.
Mr. Silver, 71, who rose through the political clubhouse system in Lower Manhattan, was first elected to the Assembly in 1976, obtained the powerful job of speaker in 1994 and ruled like a czar. Cautious, canny and laconic in the extreme, he began his legal career in private practice, then went to work for a State Supreme Court justice in Manhattan. Known as a pragmatist and a formidable negotiator, Mr. Silver speaks in a singular graveled monotone. He lives in a modest apartment building on Grand Street on the Lower East Side.
Mr. Silver’s defense has largely centered on his position that he complied with disclosure requirements and that the conduct alleged by the government does not amount to a crime.
“I’m confident,” he has said, “that after a full hearing and a due process, I will be vindicated.”
Mr. Skelos, 67, who has a reputation as a partisan brawler, lives in Rockville Centre in Nassau County, where he grew up. He is the son of a baker and a steadfast Republican mother who worked on the 1948 presidential campaign of Thomas E. Dewey. He was elected to the State Senate in 1984, and has been the Republican leader there since 2008.
A pretrial motion filed by G. Robert Gage Jr. and Christopher P. Conniff, the lawyers for Mr. Skelos and his son, seems to suggest that part of their defense could be that the senator’s son made “admittedly false or seriously exaggerated statements to his employer” about what his father was doing on the company’s behalf.
After his arrest on May 4, Mr. Skelos said, “I know that I will be found not only not guilty but innocent.” He added that he had “absolute confidence and respect for our judicial system,” saying, “That’s why I will be found innocent and my son will.”