Federal agents cuffed New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver this morning on extortion and other charges and spirited him away in the backseat of their car. The spectacle of one of New York’s mightiest politicians looking trapped and helpless was an adrenaline shot to the press and to Silver’s political adversaries. But Silver’s arrest should not be a gleeful moment for New Yorkers. When a state has to rely on federal prosecutors to provide the merest semblance of good government, that state has failed.
Silver’s arrest is huge, yes, because Silver is huge. A Democratic assemblyman since 1977 and assembly leader since 1994, he’s now the longest-serving of Albany’s “three men in a room”: the triumvirate of the assembly speaker, the Senate majority leader, and the governor, who together rule New York State. Silver outlasted Governors George Pataki, Eliot Spitzer, and David Paterson. He also outlasted Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno, himself indicted on corruption charges shortly after he left office (he was acquitted). And since Bruno left in 2008, Silver has watched as the Senate side of Albany’s legislature has gone through eight leaders, including two— Pedro Espada, Jr. and Malcolm Smith—who earned their own corruption indictments. (Espada is serving a prison sentence for embezzlement; Smith is on trial for trying to bribe his way onto the mayoral ballot.)
Prosecutors slapped Silver with two extortion charges: “using the power and influence of his official position” to win “millions of dollars in bribes and kickbacks” from two law firms and, indirectly, from their clients; and defrauding his own clients—the electorate—by failing to report much of this income on required disclosure forms. Investigators found that Silver took $5.3 million from one firm, Weitz & Luxenberg, even though he “never performed any legal work whatsoever.” And he allegedly took $700,000 from two real-estate developers via a second law firm.
Silver may not have done any legal work, but he allegedly did something for that cash. As prosecutors note, one of the huge real-estate developers that bribed Silver via one law firm “has received substantial subsidies” under two affordable-housing programs in the city. “Due to the overwhelming percentage” of its more than $1 billion in assets “tied to state programs and regulations,” the developer is “dependent on the continued existence of legislation and programs favorable to its business,” the indictment says.
As for the other firm, Weitz & Luxenberg, where Silver started “counselling” a year after the 9/11 attacks: at least one partner there thought that Silver’s affiliation with the firm would bring “prestige.” More specifically, prosecutors note that the firm “derives more than 60 percent of its revenue from asbestos cases.” Silver allegedly used Weitz & Luxenberg as a conduit for kickbacks he got from state grants he helped disburse to study 9/11 health effects. That’s right: one of New York State’s top elected officials used 9/11 survivors’ fears over their health to enrich himself at the public’s expense.
Silver’s alleged brazenness may seem remarkable to people who don’t realize that unchecked power creates a sense of invincibility. But what’s really remarkable is that Silver got away with behavior that was already public knowledge. Because Silver provided at least partial income disclosures, voters as well as Silver’s fellow assembly members have known for years that he gets lots of money from Weitz & Luxenberg for doing no real legal work (no one has ever heard of him representing a client). Voters as well as fellow politicians have also known for years how corrupt the city’s real-estate industry is. The indictment notes that the larger of the two developers that allegedly bribed Silver does much of its work in the open: it “often negotiates with leaders of state government . . . has retained lobbyists . . . and . . . is the largest political contributor in the state.” If voters don’t like the fact that big real-estate developers and other connected companies lavish money on politicians in return for special tax breaks and other favoritism, they could have voted Silver and his ilk out long ago.
But most voters don’t pay attention, and others think that such schemes benefit them. Politicians—including Mayor de Blasio and Mayor Bloomberg before him—have played the affordable housing game for years. They tout an ambitious new plan—say, building or “preserving” 200,000 “affordable” apartments. Voters are impressed, forgetting that, in a city of 3.1 million households, almost all of which qualify for some sort of “affordable” housing, their chances of getting one of those apartments are tiny. If you don’t get a lottery apartment, you pay higher rents to subsidize those who do.
Today’s indictment won’t do much to change Albany’s complacent political culture. A few hours after Silver was carted away, his fellow assembly members said they’d keep him as leader. “The speaker is going to continue to fulfill his role with distinction,” said Assembly Majority Leader Joe Morelle of Rochester. “I do not think it’s a distraction.” He’s right. Silver is an apt leader for Albany.