Silver Conviction Not Quite Gold

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 30:  Former New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver leaves a federal court in Lower Manhattan on November 30, 2015 in New York City. A jury found Silver guilty on all seven charges against him in a federal corruption trial that lasted five-weeks. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

NEW YORK, NY – NOVEMBER 30: Former New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver leaves a federal court in Lower Manhattan on November 30, 2015 in New York City. A jury found Silver guilty on all seven charges against him in a federal corruption trial that lasted five-weeks. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Prosecutors said it was a tale of greed, corruption and power. The defense said it was simply politics as usual in Albany. Actually, it was both. And that’s the problem.

On Monday, former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver became just the latest New York elected official to be convicted of corruption charges. His name was gone from his office and his biography gone from the Assembly website within in minutes of the announcement. Perhaps pretending Silver—who for two decades was one of the most powerful men in the state—simply never existed is easier than being reminded that New York’s government is hopelessly corrupt and criminal, that there is either something in the water or something in the system that invites greed and misconduct.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s history as a prosecutor has done nothing to fill in the swamp. As attorney general he asked the governor for the power to investigate corruption, but he hasn’t given that power to his own attorney general. He created the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, which good government groups say is as riddled with loopholes as the campaign finance laws that let LLCs funnel cash to people like Silver. He impaneled the Moreland Commission to sniff out corruption and then snuffed out the Commission before its work was done.

The guilty verdict is a tremendous win for Mr. Bharara, and a bad sign for former Senate Leader Dean Skelos.

It took U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, an Albany outsider, to pick up the pieces of the Moreland Commission and start a cleanup process that might rival the efforts at the Gowanus Canal. He insisted that what has long passed for legal, if unpleasant, behavior is actually bribery, even if there was little evidence showing an explicit quid pro quo. The guilty verdict is a tremendous win for Mr. Bharara, and a bad sign for former Senate Leader Dean Skelos, who Mr. Bharara has on trial just across the street from where Silver faced a jury. It’s bad news for everyone who thought this was politics as usual.

Silver was convicted of selling his influence in Albany. He traded state cancer research grants for the names of patients exposed to asbestos, which translated into lucrative referral fees from the law firm Weitz & Luxenberg. After Glenwood Management and the Witkoff Group hired a friend’s law firm—without knowing Silver was getting a cut from that firm, too—he lent his support to rent legislation they favored. Silver, the government argued, was being paid for his votes in Albany, for his funneling of taxpayer cash.

Perhaps Silver’s defense attorneys were right to assert that an Assembly member cannot possibly have outside income without running into conflicts of interest as an Assembly member. But surely New York deserves a system better than one that allows lawmakers to accept millions of dollars in personal income from industries they are charged with regulating.

The no-show jobs he held weren’t illegal, but they should be: it’s time for New York to ban outside income for state legislators. If lawmakers want to start to rebuilding the trust of voters, they must start by making it their full-time job to serve the public good instead of themselves.

Silver Conviction Not Quite Gold