The guilty verdict in Sheldon Silver’s federal corruption trial marks a significant change in the fortunes of the man who dominated Albany for 20 years as assembly speaker. There are probably a dozen or more elected officials around New York State who also have cause for worry. But careful observers of the trial—and of New York politics generally—will have noted that while the actors playing the parts occasionally change, the play they’re in never does.
One of the two major prongs of U.S. attorney Preet Bharara’s case against Silver focused on his dealings with Glenwood Management, a multibillion-dollar development company owned by centenarian Leonard Litwin. Glenwood contributes millions of dollars to politicians in both parties, mostly through LLCs, but it also spends about $1 million annually on lobbyists; the combined effect of Glenwood’s generosity is to make it an extremely powerful force in New York politics.
Silver procured valuable 421-a property-tax abatements for Glenwood’s developments, in exchange for which Glenwood funneled legal work through a law firm that kicked back referral fees to Silver. The firm, Goldberg & Iryami, was run by a childhood friend of Silver and paid him some $700,000 in fees in exchange for the business. The prosecutors demonstrated that Silver effectively extorted Glenwood into giving business to his friend’s law firm. “The defendant held the fate of [Glenwood’s] business in his hands,” explained prosecutor Carrie Cohen in the opening statement.
Richard Runes, a major Albany presence and real estate attorney who earned hundreds of thousands of dollars as a Glenwood lobbyist, described the situation in similar terms, saying that Glenwood’s dealings with Silver were like holding a tiger by its tail. “What were you concerned he could do to you if you decided to let go?” asked prosecutor Howard Master. Though Runes said he was “uncomfortable” with the arrangement, he nevertheless helped draw up a secret side-letter that detailed Glenwood’s fee-splitting with Silver.
Brian Meara is another well-connected Albany insider who earned $10,000 per month lobbying on behalf of Glenwood. He is close friends with Congressman Joseph Crowley, who is also boss of the Queens County Democratic machine. Brian Meara’s brother Chuck was chief of staff for two New York City Council speakers and the uncle of a state assemblyman. Brian Meara testified under a non-prosecution agreement that he was “surprised and concerned” that Silver was receiving money from Glenwood via fee-sharing.
Any case of bribery can be looked at as blackmail. Like a glove turned inside-out, both parties to such arrangements are ethically compromised. Silver certainly betrayed the public trust and deserves prison; Glenwood (which is also at the center of the corruption trial of former New York State Senate majority leader Dean Skelos) was operating in business-as-usual mode and probably merits scrutiny. But it’s the consultants doing business with both parties, arranging shadowy deals, who really deserve closer examination.
Glenwood and other large corporations pay millions of dollars to insiders like Brian Meara and Richard Runes because they can offer access to public officials. It would take a massive act of bad faith to imagine that any of the negotiations between Glenwood and Silver and the other parties took place without the active intervention of the lobbyists. What else are they paid to do except arrange such deals?
John Dewey said that politics is a shadow, and “attenuation of the shadow will not change the substance.” Getting rid of Silver is fine, and will definitely give Bharara’s career a boost. But New York’s lobbying and consulting class has become a shadow government—getting politicians elected and then feeding them money through corporate clients. Until that system of corruption gets exposed, New Yorkers won’t be able to trust their leaders.