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Sheldon Silver and the Albany Culture of Corruption

eye on the news

Sheldon Silver and the Albany Culture of Corruption

The disgraced former assembly speaker faces possible jail time, but the institutions he exploited so baldly go stubbornly unreformed. May 16, 2018
Politics and law
New York

It took a jury in Manhattan federal court a scant eight hours last week to convict former New York assembly speaker Sheldon Silver on a range of corruption charges. Whether the verdict stands on appeal remains to be seen—a 2015 conviction was tossed on technicalities—but even if it does, it’s clear that the corrupt culture Silver so masterfully exploited has survived him.

There likely never will be another Shelly Silver. For two decades one of the most powerful politicians in the Empire State and arguably the most consequential elected official since Nelson Rockefeller, Silver extended his influence far beyond the legislative chamber that he adroitly commanded. Through a combination of wit, guile, opportunity, and circumstance, he placed personal friends and political allies atop both New York’s expansive court system and its principal education policy panel, the state Board of Regents. Brazenly exploiting lawmaking’s officially part-time status in New York, he made millions in the employ of a top trial-law firm—while, not coincidentally, looking out for the interests of the state’s robust litigation industry. (It’s no accident that medical-malpractice insurance in New York is among the most expensive in America.)

It was Silver’s rainmaking work for Weitz & Luxenberg, one of the nation’s leading asbestos litigators, that ultimately led him to legal grief—and to the attention of then-U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara and on to criminal court, where he is scheduled to return for sentencing July 13. His original conviction produced a 12-year prison sentence, so the 74-year-old former lawmaker could well spend the rest of his life in federal custody. That may seem like harsh punishment, but it would hardly be unwarranted given Silver’s self-serving exercise of the virtually unique powers of his office. It is a fair measure of the cynicism that defines government in New York that since Silver’s fall there has not been a serious proposal advanced to reform the institutions that he exploited so baldly.

By law and custom, an assembly speaker controls everything in that body—legislation, of course, but also committee assignments and the so-called leadership stipends that go with them, down to the allocation of member parking spaces and office supplies. Incur the leader’s displeasure, and a rank-and-file member risks losing everything from pork-barrel projects for constituents to the office postage meter. None of that has changed. Incumbent Speaker Carl Heastie of the Bronx is still feeling his way—it takes time to learn how to play the system like a concert piano—but he adroitly installed a teachers’ union ally as chancellor of the state Board of Regents when no one was looking, effectively killing any hope of meaningful public school teacher accountability in New York. So he already knows the ropes pretty well.

And because the speaker also functionally controls appointments to empty constitutional offices, Heastie became the man of the moment when Eric Schneiderman resigned as attorney general last week, reportedly cutting a quick deal with New York City Democratic bosses to name Public Advocate Tish James to the post. The quid quo pro? Institutional support for Bronx borough president Ruben Diaz Jr.’s presumed mayoral campaign in 2021. That deal appears to have fallen apart—this time, people were looking—but it could well come back in a different form. Meanwhile, other AG aspirants continue to troop to Heastie, heads bowed and CVs firmly in hand.

But the larger point remains: Silver’s disgrace has had no discernible effect on the way Albany conducts the public’s business. And no one should have expected it to, given the record.

Since 2006, more than 30 New York lawmakers have been forced from office for one malefaction or another, and several remain in prison. Silver’s state senate counterpart, former majority leader Dean Skelos, is awaiting retrial on corruption charges of his own. Joseph Percoco, until his own fall Governor Andrew Cuomo’s closest aide, was convicted on bribery charges last year, along with several others. A second round of Cuomo-related corruption prosecutions are expected to begin shortly. And now comes word that federal prosecutors in Manhattan have opened an investigation into some $400,000 worth of highly suspect contributions to Cuomo’s reelection accounts in 2013.

All this structural corruption goes on without one serious reform proposal put forward in Albany. Talk, yes; action, no. In fact, Cuomo four years ago went out of his way to impede the work of an anti-corruption commission that he himself had established.

This behavior is no surprise. Neither is the bedrock reason for it. Shortly after Silver’s 2015 conviction, an upstate college polled New Yorkers for their views on the situation. As might be expected, almost 90 percent of respondents expressed concern about corruption, but a scant 18 percent thought that fighting it should be a high priority.

Shelly Silver understood this dichotomy, and he dined out on it for decades. If the people don’t really care about rapacious politicians, why should the politicians themselves?

Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images

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