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BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | A political tsunami hit Lower Manhattan and all of New York State last Thursday as Sheldon Sheldon, the powerful speaker of the Assembly, surrendered to the F.B.I. on multiple corruption charges.
According to U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, Silver’s alleged crimes include two forms of graft involving his outside income over the past 10 years: namely, accepting kickbacks from a real estate law firm, as well as engaging in a quid pro quo involving asbestos patients and state funding, altogether totaling nearly $4 million.
“These charges in our view go to the very core of what ails Albany,” Bharara said last week. “Lack of transparency, lack of accountability and lack of principle, joined with an overabundance of greed, cronyism and self-dealing.”
Silver, 70, was charged with five counts of corruption, extortion and fraud, each carrying a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.
He turned himself in at 26 Federal Plaza at 8 a.m. Thursday. Then — with his hands cuffed behind his back — he was driven in a white Impala to nearby Federal Court and arraigned of his charges. Pleading not guilty on all counts, he was freed on $200,000 bond.
Exiting court, as TV news reporters thrust microphones at him, he said a few words — including, “I hope I’ll be vindicated” — then walked off.
Last Friday, Silver, in conference with his fellow assemblymembers, laid out a scheme under which he hoped to retain his speakership while agreeing to delegate temporarily some of his powers — including negotiating the state budget — to a committee of five senior assemblymembers while he confronted the charges.
But his plan was panned, and by early this week, it was clear that the majority of Assembly Democrats wanted Silver to step down as speaker.
Joseph Morelle, the Assembly majority leader, initially conveyed to Silver the message that he had until next Tuesday to decide on whether to step down or face being ousted.
However, as of this Tuesday evening, Assembly Democrats had agreed that Morelle, who is from Rochester area, would temporarily assume the role of acting speaker for eight days starting next Monday, as the Assembly searches for a new leader. On Feb. 10, an election will be held to fill the speaker position permanently.
Silver said, “I will not hinder the process.”
He intends to keep his Assembly seat, but, if ultimately convicted of a felony he would no longer legally be allowed to serve.
In the days leading up to Tuesday evening’s news, calls for Silver to step down had been mounting.
“He should understand that he’s lost the confidence of a majority of our conference,” Assemblymember Brian Kavanagh said.
Governor Andrew Cuomo offered that “it would be a good thing” if someone else took over as speaker, and that “governing by committee” doesn’t work.
“It’s not time to step aside; it’s actually time to step down,” City Comptroller Scott Stringer declared. “We need one leader in the Assembly, someone who can guide these budget negotiations.”
Other influential voices calling for Silver to throw in the towel included Assemblymember Keith Wright and Public Advocate Letitia James.
It’s been a swift and dramatic fall for Silver, who has been the powerful Assembly speaker for the past 20 years. A native Lower East Sider, he has represented Lower Manhattan’s 65th Assembly District since 1976.
Silver is accused of two separate schemes, occurring over the past decade. In the first, he allegedly directed real estate developers with business before the state to a small real estate law firm run by his former general counsel, for which the firm allegedly paid him $700,000.
In the second, he is accused of secretly funneling two state grants totaling $500,000 to a Columbia University cancer researcher who, in turn, referred asbestos cancer patients to Weitz and Luxenberg — the law firm where Silver is a personal-injury lawyer. Prosecutors say the firm then paid Silver a total of $3.2 million in “referral fees.”
Bharara said Silver did “nothing” to collect his legal fees except trade on his influence in the Assembly.
Over the years, Silver was famously well known for resisting efforts to make him reveal information about his outside income. He has said that he earns more than $650,000 per year from the law firm, though exactly what he did for it was always shrouded in secrecy. His government salary is $121,000.
The investigation originally grew out of the Moreland Commission, Governor Cuomo’s anticorruption panel, which focused on probing Albany legislators’ outside income and campaign finance.
However, legislators took legal action to block the investigations into their outside income.
News of Silver’s imminent arrest was first announced early Thursday morning in a New York Times article.
State Senator Brad Hoylman was the first to call publicly — on Twitter — for Silver to step down.
“Speaker Silver should resign for the good of the people of New York,” Hoylman tweeted.
Wednesday night, Cuomo had given his State of the State speech, with Silver seated prominently right beside him on the stage.
He has previously called for “serious new restrictions” on state politicians’ outside income, which he said is often “shady.”
Democratic District Leader Paul Newell, who ran a spirited race against Silver in the 2008 Democratic primary, issued an e-mail statement around 6 a.m. last Thursday on Silver’s “imminent arrest.”
“If the report in The New York Times is true, this is a sad day for Lower Manhattan and a sad day for New York,” Newell said.
“I can’t speak to the specific charges against the speaker, but I can say that outside income for legislators is a certain recipe for corruption. Speaker Silver and Majority Leader Skelos should have banned it long ago.”
Asked if he thought Silver should resign, Newell said, “If the allegations are true, certainly. If not, he has the right to defend himself.”
Silver is a champion among many progressive Democrats for his support of bread-and-butter causes, like unions, teachers and programs to help the poor.
Indeed, in the wake of the shocking news, Mayor Bill de Blasio voiced support for the Assembly speaker, calling him “a man of integrity,” and saying that he was owed “due process.”
Similarly, last Thursday, two of Silver’s longtime Assembly colleagues from Manhattan’s West Side, Deborah Glick and Richard Gottfried, stressed that Silver has not been convicted of anything, and praised him for his work in the Assembly.
Gottfried said that, in fact, in his view, Silver is nothing less than a political hero. And he indicated that he felt Silver should remain as speaker while the charges are being resolved.
“Speaker Silver is presumed innocent until proven guilty, like every American,” Gottfried said in a statement. “A criminal complaint is an accusation; it is not evidence.
“I have confidence that Speaker Silver, with the strong support of the Assembly majority, will continue to do the job of working for a progressive agenda while the current charges are being resolved….
“There is no one in public life in New York who has fought more effectively, for decades, for almost everything I care about in public policy than Sheldon Silver.”
Meanwhile, Glick, in a phone interview, said: “There are constitutional protections that apply to everyone, from the highest person to the lowest person. Those include the presumption of innocence.”
This week, after Silver agreed to leave his leadership position, Glick said “It’s sad. … He had a huge number of key victories,” rattling off a number of these. “We don’t have a West Side stadium because he knew it was the wrong thing to do. Obviously, we have marriage equality because he put it on the agenda and we voted on it several times before the governor stepped in to help with the Senate.”
She also noted that Silver had protected rent regulation.
“He has a great record — and it’s very sad,” she concluded.
Kavanagh, who has been outspoken in calling for Silver to step down, unlike Glick and Gottfried, is a relative newcomer to the Assembly, having only served since 2007.
Newspaper editorials last week promptly called for Silver to resign, with The New York Times declaring it “incredible” for him to think of continuing to serve in his Assembly job while defending himself against bribery and kickback charges involving millions.
Last Friday, City Councilmember Margaret Chin released a statement calling the charges “deeply serious and deeply concerning. The speaker has been a strong advocate for the Lower Manhattan community, and he has especially been a champion for local schools and affordable housing. I am personally very troubled by these allegations against the speaker, but I will refrain from passing judgment on his current legal situation until the judicial process is complete.”
Among the names mentioned as the most likely permanent replacement for Silver have been Morelle, Wright, Joseph Lentol from Greenpoint, Carl Heastie from the Bronx and Cathy Nolan from Queens.
Glick, too, has at times in the past been mentioned as a possible candidate for speaker.
Asked about that last Thursday, though, she said, “I’m not going to engage in any musings or hypotheticals at this point.”
In the eventuality that Silver is, in fact, convicted of a felony, meaning his seat would become open or he does not run for reelection next year, there is no shortage of candidates who would be ready to run for the position.
Some names that have been mentioned include his former primary opponent Newell; Julie Menin, the current Department of Consumer Affairs commissioner and former Community Board 1 chairperson; and Alan van Capelle, former executive director of the Empire State Pride Agenda and current president of the Educational Alliance.
No doubt, other candidates might emerge.