With Silver and Skelos Trials, a Light Breeze of Change Wafts Over Albany

Will the dueling trials of two of the state's top lawmakers spur ethics reform?

Former New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver arrives for his trial on November 3, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Former New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver arrives for his trial on November 3, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

In addition to his $121,000 Assembly speaker’s salary, Sheldon Silver was being paid $120,000 a year by a personal injury law firm that expected him not to do any legal work, but merely wanted the prestige of his name. The powerful legislator also received hundreds of thousands more from Weitz & Luxenberg for passing along names of mesothelioma victims looking for lawyers.

“That may make you uncomfortable,” Mr. Silver’s defense attorney Steven Molo argued in his opening statement at his client’s ongoing corruption trial. “But that is the system New York has chosen. And that is not a crime.”

Mr. Molo’s statement conjures up the famous line uttered by Hyman Roth in Godfather II: “This is the business we’ve chosen.”

But even if a jury acquits Mr. Silver, advocates for changing the “system New York has chosen” hope media coverage of Mr. Silver’s slew of sinecures will strike the public as unseemly enough to end outside income for lawmakers.

“We did not choose that system, you chose that system and we’re telling you to change it,” said Susan Lerner, executive director of the good government group Common Cause. “That is really sort of extraordinarily tone-deaf thing to say, because ordinary folks know: you have a sense of what’s right and what’s wrong. And somehow, one way or another, people go to Albany over time and they lose that sense.”

The office of U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara thinks what Mr. Silver did was both uncomfortable and a crime. Mr. Silver traded public money to fund mesothelioma research in exchange for patient referrals to line his own pockets, they charge, and also took kickbacks, described as “referral fees,” after directing real estate companies Glenwood Management and the Witkoff Group to use the law firm of his former counsel. Meanwhile, Mr. Silver led negotiations for renewing rent control laws and tax breaks, wielding immense sway over the real estate industry. Prosecutors say that adds up to fraud and extortion.

SEE MORE: The Many Faces of Sheldon Silver

As if the trial of one of Albany’s powerful “three men in a room” wasn’t enough, the trial of another, former State Senate Leader Dean Skelos, recently started. Mr. Skelos is accused of using his influence to get no-show jobs for his son.

Former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos. (Photo by Matthew Cavanaugh/Getty Images)

Former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos. (Photo by Matthew Cavanaugh/Getty Images)

“We think this is absolutely a tipping point,” Ms. Lerner said. “We think there is a huge public demand for change.”

Mr. Silver’s trial is a case study in everything good government groups want to change. There’s the “of counsel” job. There are the donations from Glenwood to Mr. Silver. There are Mr. Silver’s legal fees—$1.5 million so far—being covered by campaign donations.

Yet Mr. Silver is hardly alone in cashing in from a law firm while representing New Yorkers. Mr. Skelos reported earning between $150,000 and $250,000 last year in outside income, and his successor, State Senate Leader John Flanagan, pocketed at least $100,000 in 2014, according to disclosure forms. But the tide may be turning—at least temporarily: Mr. Flanagan left his law firm when he was elected senate leader. State Senator Jeffrey Klein, leader of the Independent Democratic Conference, ended his association with Klein Calderoni & Santucci LLP in February.

“I think New Yorkers understand if you’re getting paid hundreds of thousands of dollars, you’re getting paid for something. And if you’re not getting paid for your work at a Manhattan law firm, then New Yorkers are right to question if you’re getting paid for your work in Albany,” said Tom Stebbins, the executive director of Lawsuit Reform Alliance of New York, who noted favorable state laws for trial lawyers.

In a damning speech this spring, State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman urged the State Legislature to prohibit outside income for legislators and end per diem payments. “In the 21st century,” said Mr. Schneiderman, “it is impossible to avoid conflicts—or the appearance of conflicts—if legislators have outside employment.”

Mr. Schneiderman’s proposal died in the State Legislature. But could law firms step up where elected officials fear to tread? After the negative publicity surrounding Mr. Silver’s tainted association with Weitz & Luxenberg, firms may be wary of giving politicians high-profile positions.

But Ronald Kuby, the defense attorney and radio talk show host, wasn’t so sure. He once represented a businessman who had hired former State Senator John Sampson as his lawyer, and was then caught up in Mr. Sampson’s corruption trial. Mr. Sampson was eventually convicted of lying to the FBI.

Many firms recognize the “intrinsic value” of having a marquee name at their firm. “Law firms want to attract marquee names and those marquee names a have a value,” he continued, “but those marquee names have to work in order to get paid.”

“You have the choice as a client between going to Joe Schmo lawyer,” he said, “or going to lawyer who [is] the majority speaker…Who are you going to go to?”