Days after he was placed in handcuffs and led into a courtroom, Sheldon Silver agreed to step aside temporarily as speaker of the state Assembly. You now know everything you need to know about the ethical and moral rot that has taken over Albany. Even after his indictment on serious corruption charges, Sheldon Silver simply is incapable of surrendering power. All he can do is loosen his grasp ever so slightly while he tries to avoid spending the better part of his old age in prison.
Sheldon Silver should resign and Assembly Democrats ought to choose a new speaker as soon as possible
It’s not enough. Sheldon Silver should resign and Assembly Democrats ought to choose a new speaker as soon as possible. A clean break is necessary because—and this may come as a surprise not only to Mr. Silver but to Albany’s legion of lobbyists and hangers-on—the issues confronting New York are far more important than the speaker’s elevated sense of entitlement.
Albany does not lack for politicians willing to use their political clout for personal enrichment. More than two-dozen state legislators have left office because of criminal or ethical issues since 1999, according to the Citizens Union. But even in this moral cesspool, Mr. Silver stood out as an exemplar of everything public service should not be. The indictment brought against him last week simply confirmed what many suspected: Mr. Silver’s association with the law firm of Weitz & Luxenberg was a conflict-of-interest charge waiting to happen. The Observer reported last week that the same law firm was also outrageously generous to two other New York pols tied to the Moreland Commission, now-Congresswoman Kathleen Rice and Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. We call upon them to return the contributions from the law firm alleged to have showered more than $5 million upon the speaker.
More than a century ago, during another ethical crisis in Albany, Tammany Hall boss Richard Croker was called to testify about his many private business deals and the ways in which he manipulated public policy to benefit those interests. A lawyer for a special investigative committee was taken aback by Croker’s candor. “You are working for your pocket, aren’t you?” asked the lawyer, Frank Moss.
“All the time,” Croker responded.
The same question should have been asked of Mr. Silver years ago; although it’s unlikely he would have answered as honestly as Croker did. (Former Gov. George Pataki came close—as Michael Goodwin of the Daily News noted, during a contentious budget meeting more than a decade ago, Mr. Silver’s opaque machinations led Mr. Pataki to ask him, “Who’s your client?”)
Those kinds of questions ought to be asked of every member of the Legislature, and they should be required to answer in painstaking detail. Technically our Assembly members and State Senators are part-time workers and are allowed to supplement their incomes with outside work. Mr. Silver did just that with enthusiasm, adding to his $121,000 annual salary with millions in dubious legal fees from Weitz & Luxenberg. What Mr. Silver did on a grand scale is being done every day by his colleagues, although it should be noted that they have not received a raise since 1999, while Mr. Silver, who refused to fight for a raise for his friends and allies, has been raking in his fees on the side.
New Yorkers have been hearing promises from governors and attorney generals for years about their burning desire to change the way Albany does business. And yet nothing, or very little, changed. Few would-be reformers were more insistent than Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and yet it was he who disbanded a Moreland Commission investigation just as it seemed to be making headway. Mr. Cuomo’s decision outraged U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who immediately took up the fallen standard of reform. The Silver indictment grew out of Mr. Bharara’s investigation. And the prosecutor suggested there may be more to come.
In a speech at New York Law School the day after Mr. Silver’s arrest, Mr. Bharara made it clear that the days of business as usual in Albany are coming to a close. He wondered aloud why it was that crucial decisions were made by just three men—the governor, the Senate majority leader, and the Assembly speaker. Just two days earlier, Mr. Cuomo had made a playful reference to the “three men in a room” ritual, referring to himself and his two colleagues as the “Three Amigos.”
People laughed at the reference. They’re not laughing now, least of all Mr. Cuomo.