We all know what absolute power does, and no lawmaker in the country thinks his power is more absolute than New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.
Only in a culture like Albany’s could a single legislator, like Silver, authorize a secret payment of over $100,000 in public money to settle a sexual harassment allegation against a colleague and unblinkingly call it “ethical.” Only in a culture like Albany’s would the revelation of this action not result in widespread, immediate demands for Silver’s resignation.
Instead, while many have called upon the alleged serial groper in question (Assemblyman Vito Lopez, a Democrat from Brooklyn) to step down, the most drastic action that everyone, from Gov. Andrew Cuomo down, has called for in Silver’s case is an investigation of his conduct.
If you’re going to shoot at a king, you have to be sure you kill him. (Lest anyone be confused, this is merely a figure of speech and emphatically not a call for violence against Silver or anyone else.) There is no mistaking that Silver is the Assembly’s reining king.
The truly sad part is that even getting rid of Silver would change nothing. We’d simply get a new boss for the Assembly with similar absolute power to control his members’ personal financial well-being, because New York legislators’ pay varies according to committee assignments and other distinctions controlled by their leadership. We could expect the same results that absolute power always brings.
Silver probably believes he was acting ethically. He has apologized for not sending the matter to the Assembly’s ethics committee – not because he thinks he was wrong, evidently, but because failing to send the matter to committee projected the wrong message regarding transparency. “I take full responsibility in not insisting that all cases go to the ethics committee,” he said in a statement. It seems to be the only aspect of the incident for which he recognizes the need to acknowledge responsibility at all.
Unlike a series of other New York lawmakers in recent memory, Silver was not diverting public money to line his own pockets. This alone almost qualifies as ethical behavior in Albany these days. He might even be telling the truth – emphasis on “might” – when he claims that the anonymous other party to the secret settlement he arranged was the one who asked for secrecy.
But whether this is true misses the larger point. As state Sen. Liz Krueger told The New York Times, “I’m still very confused what line in the budget of the State of New York is available for private, nondisclosed civil case resolution.” The idea that such a secret payout could be in any way appropriate reflects the distance between Albany’s culture and reality.
Silver sees this slice of public money as the Assembly’s money. As unchallenged king of the Assembly, he sees the Assembly’s money as his to do with as he sees fit. Sending such a matter to the ethics committee would be merely a concession to keep others happy, a sort of noblesse oblige.
Silver should go. But until the system in Albany changes, we should not expect anything better from his eventual successor.