To his credit, Sheldon Silver has outlasted three of his counterparts in the Massachusetts House of Representatives who were each convicted of federal crimes during Silver’s tenure as Speaker of the New York State Assembly. But when word leaked that he was paid a “substantial” sum of money by a New York law firm that was not the one in which he was a partner – and pulling out in the neighborhood of $650,000 per annum from that one – it just seemed a matter of time before this day came.
I had recent occasion to review the 2010 report of New York’s Inspector General following his investigation of a scandalous procurement award to the Aqueduct Entertainment Group for the right to operate the Video Lottery Terminals at Aqueduct. He was commenting on the bizarre provision of the law giving the Governor, Assembly Speaker and Senate leader the authority to make the procurement decision:
At the time of this report, only Speaker Silver retains his role, as Governor Spitzer was forced to resign in the wake of a prostitution scandal, and Senator Bruno resigned and then was indicted and convicted on federal charges of depriving the state of his honest services.
Bruno’s conviction was later overturned and he was acquitted in the subsequent trial. Spitzer’s resignation was not related to government corruption, but had more to do with his sanctimonious hubris and hypocrisy. Silver, of course, is presumed innocent.
The Inspector General’s Report was an eye-opening look at what has been called a “culture of corruption” in New York State. Andrew Cuomo ran as a reformer in his campaign for Governor the year the report was released. Then, as he was gearing up for a reelection bid, he appointed a “Moreland Commission” to investigate corruption in the state, even saying the commission could investigate him. Of course, all that changed when the Commission started to pursue evidence from major Cuomo contributors. The New York Times has reported that high-level Cuomo confidantes brought pressure on the supposedly independent Commission to back off.
As part of the budget bill from early 2014, there were insignificant measures addressing political “reform,” but also the surprising announcement that Cuomo had decided to disband the Moreland Commission because the dubious reforms accomplished his goals.
Unfortunately for the Governor, the United States Attorney in New York City had a different take on the progress being made to root out New York’s seemingly rampant corruption. He acquired the files from the disbanded Moreland Commission, went to work and convened a grand jury. The first result of that effort was the Thursday arrest of Sheldon Silver, who until that point had acquired an image to rival that of the Teflon Don. He is now accused of taking millions from the corrupt use of his government position.
While this is undoubtedly not the greatest day in the Speaker’s life, things cannot be all that rosy for the Governor either. For starters, he has to explain why he disbanded a panel tasked with rooting out corruption only to have the United States Attorney Preet Bharara, in less than a year, charge one of the biggest fish in the state. And, there is only one bigger fish.
But the truly disturbing aspect for Cuomo has to be whether the Speaker will be rolling over to give the feds the conversations that led to the dismantling of the Moreland Commission for the laughable legislative accomplishments that Cuomo claimed achieved his goals of reform. If the allegations against him are solid, the only thing he may have to bargain is what he and Cuomo discussed prior to the Governor’s dismantling of the Moreland Commission.
And I have to guess that Bharara, who is clearly not enamored of the Governor’s zeal for reform, thought the arrest of the Speaker, on the day after Cuomo’s latest budget proposal, may be a fitting bookend to the deal arrived at the end of last year’s budget process.
Let’s not forget Mel Miller, whose conviction was overturned. Speakers are good cannon fodder.