Sheldon “Shelly” Silver isn’t a household name outside of the halls of Albany, but he should be. This week, the speaker of the New York state assembly was frog-marched into an FBI car and hauled away by federal agents. He subsequently posted $200,000 in bond, surrendered his passport, and was released.
The charges against Silver? Engineering a massive $6 million pay-for-play scheme from the speaker’s office for the past 15 years. U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara seized a whopping $3.4 million from Silver’s bank accounts as the ax fell. It’s enough to make Boss Tweed blush.
As a New Yorker and a member of the state assembly, I find Silver’s conduct disgusting but not surprising. He’s been a kleptocrat and tyrant for over two decades. He is a successful lawyer and a shrewd operator in Albany and New York City who knows the political and legal system inside and out.
For example, Silver’s power is so immense he has singlehandedly held up a tort-reform bill sponsored by his own hand-picked majority leader because his trial-lawyer buddies and paymasters want it blocked. He also uses his broad powers within the Democratic party to choose who the judges will be in New York’s trial courts, as judicial nominees are selected by political committees and run for election on partisan lines like non-judicial candidates — and Republican votes are scarce in New York.
In office, Silver is the embodiment of Albany’s fabled culture of “three men in a room” — the governor, the state-senate leader, and the speaker of the assembly (Silver). They cut deals in back rooms, trot them out as compromises, and then threaten and intimidate anyone who crosses them.
When the New York Times broke the news of Silver’s arrest this week, I was hopeful. It was a new day in New York State. The charges were so damning, Albany would wake up and stand together and finally do something to end the corruption. I urged my colleagues, Republicans and Democrats (including the governor), to call for Silver to resign. The New York Times editorial board even chimed in, calling for Silver to go.
As the morning progressed, I grew despondent. Governor Andrew Cuomo was silent. Even GOP senate leader Dean Skelos refused to condemn Silver. Then the assembly Democratic caucus met behind closed doors. The meeting dragged on. When they emerged, Silver’s deputy, Joe Morrelle, stood by Silver, saying his fellow Democrats had “faith” in the speaker.
I was floored, but then I remembered: It’s not their fault; they are seriously ill. With generous pay and benefits, lax ethics and law enforcement, and no term limits on state legislators, Silver and many other so-called leaders in Albany developed Career Politician Syndrome. One of Silver’s staunchest supporters in this corruption debacle, Richard Gottfried, embodies the syndrome perfectly. Now 67, he was first elected at age 23.
The disease afflicts Democrats and Republicans alike in Albany and metastasizes quickly. It starts with rewarding politicians for climbing the ranks of leadership, which entails going along to get along on pork projects, and often ends with an extended stay behind bars at a government-sponsored resort.
Sadly, we’ve seen the symptoms of this terrible disease for a long time. In 2012, it came to light that Silver had covered up the sexual harassment of young women by then-assemblyman Vito Lopez (D., Brooklyn) with cash payouts. I called for Silver’s resignation immediately, saying, “Speaker Silver’s complete disregard for the ethics rules and hard-working taxpayers of New York is a disgrace. He should step down from his speakership immediately. . . . The pattern of bad behavior, secrecy, corruption, and theft of taxpayer money suggests that these may not be isolated instances.” But Silver did not resign.
Then word came in December that Silver was to be indicted imminently on unspecified corruption charges. I stood up and was later joined by a few brave colleagues and again told Silver to go. Crickets.
To their credit, the GOP assembly leadership and one courageous assembly Democrat, Mickey Kearns of Buffalo, want Silver gone. But even after being handcuffed and fingerprinted, and facing decades in prison, Silver has so much sway in the Albany cesspool that his allies and enemies alike are afraid to come out against him.
I’ll make a prediction: He probably has something on most of them. If Silver turns informant, half of Albany will be going to jail.
Whether that happens or not, it’s time to restore Thomas Jefferson’s ideal of the citizen-legislator. We need to impose term limits on both leadership and all office holders, make the legislature a part-time job by slashing the legislative session in half, cut politicians’ pay and plush pension benefits, and do something unprecedented in Albany: give voters the chance to elect ethical politicians.
Out of this tragedy and farce comes a new opportunity for the voters of the Empire State to stand up and elect people who truly represent them, public-minded citizens and leaders who want to reform Albany and get New York moving again. Then it truly will be a new day in New York State.