Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (right). Photo by Zack Seward
The cesspool that is the New York Legislature has overflowed with the prosecution of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. While it’s great that U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara wants to drain some of the muck, even a cleaned-up cesspool is still a cesspool in the end.
Silver, who has been speaker since 1994, was arrested last week on a variety of corruption charges. These centered on two central mechanisms that prosecutors claimed Silver has used to obtain bribes and kickbacks. The nature of the charges also attracted further attention to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s decision last year to shut down the Moreland Commission, an anticorruption panel that he appointed the previous summer. One of the commission’s central objectives had been to investigate the outside income of New York lawmakers.
Silver is entitled to the presumption of innocence in the criminal corruption case against him, just like anyone else would be. But if any New Yorkers care to pay attention, they are under no obligation to presume him innocent in the heavy-handed backroom dealing that marks Albany’s process, in which every other Assembly member’s vote is subordinated to Silver’s whim. Nor is there any presumption of innocence in the political sense associated with the fact that Silver, who is not known as one of the nation’s brilliant legal minds, makes an inordinate amount of money supposedly from his part-time law practice. The heart of the case against him is that Silver is selling his legislative muscle rather than his legal smarts.
The broad outlines of how Silver earns his living have been known for many years. So has Albany’s practice of turning its legislative process into nothing more than the so-called “three men in a room.” Nor is Albany’s political quagmire restricted to those at the highest levels; The New York Times reports that more than 30 state officeholders have been accused of wrongdoing in the past decade, and many were convicted.
Malcolm Smith, a state senator from Queens, was charged with trying to bribe his way onto a mayoral ballot. Eric Stevenson, an assemblyman from the Bronx, was convicted of accepting more than $200,000 in bribes. William Boyland, Jr., an assemblyman from Brooklyn, went above and beyond: He was convicted of several federal crimes, including requesting $250,000 in exchange for political favors in order to pay his legal fees in a separate corruption case. As Daniel Halloran, a city councilman who was charged along with Smith, reportedly said, “Money is what greases the wheels - good, bad or indifferent.” Albany has yielded the same fruit for years; it does not take much of a leap to imagine it has something to do with muck in which it grows.
Silver’s position has long allowed him to engage in blatant overreach and abuse of power, seemingly with impunity. In 2012, I wrote about Silver’s decision to authorize a secret payment of public money to settle sexual harassment allegations leveled at a colleague. Years earlier, Silver resisted a challenge to his power as speaker by Assemblyman Michael Bragman; fellow legislators stood by and watched while Silver retaliated by stripping Bragman of majority leadership, two offices and more than $1 million in funding, as though such resources were Silver’s personal property to give or withhold. Silver’s Albany is not a pretty place, even when no laws are violated.
New Yorkers deserve exactly the kind of government that they keep electing. It is one in which, as I have previously written, nobody who possesses sufficient talent, integrity and self-respect would want to participate, at least in the halls of the state Legislature. In New York, there are plenty of places for capable people to find other gainful employment. They have no need and, understandably, no desire to climb into that fetid tank with Silver and his ilk.
While we have to applaud Bharara’s determination to press on where the Moreland Commission was forced to leave off, it is foolish to expect any significant change in Albany as a result. Silver was a creature of that place, not its creator. The system that put him in charge remains undisturbed.