New York state politics may never be the same.
Early this morning, federal agents brought in the “king fish” of New York politics, the imperial Speaker of the State Assembly, Sheldon Silver. The powerful Democrat was arrested and will be arraigned in Federal Court in Manhattan on a five count indictment. The feds allege that over more than a decade, Silver took in excess of $4 million in bribes and kickbacks. U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara has scheduled a press conference for later today to detail the charges.
For observers of New York politics, Silver’s fall comes as no surprise. During his more than two decades as head of the Assembly, rumors have swirled that Silver was self-dealing or otherwise abusing his office.
The federal charges stem from millions in outside income earned by Silver through work he claims to have done with two New York law firms. In a statement issued to the media Robert Ryan, a criminal investigator for the US Attorney’s Office, reported that Silver allegedly did not perform any of the legal work he claimed to have done for the firms. He also failed to list much of the income on his financial disclosure statements.
“There is probable cause to believe that Silver obtained approximately $4 million in payments characterized as attorney referral fees solely through the corrupt use of his official position. . . Sheldon Silver .. has engaged in and continues to engage in a secret and corrupt scheme to deprive the citizens of the State of New York of his honest services, and to extort individuals and entities under color of official right,” Ryan wrote.
Recently, Silver also became entangled in another controversy where he was found to have covered up the use of nearly $700,000 in taxpayer money to defend disgraced former assemblyman Vito Lopez in a slimy sexual-harassment case. In 2013, it was revealed that despite a conflict of interest, his Chief of Staff Judy Rapfogel represented him at meetings where legislators appropriated millions of dollars to non-profit organizations. One of those groups, the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, was run by Rapfogel’s husband who was later fired and charged with stealing more than $1 million in an elaborate insurance fraud scheme.
Liberal stalwart Silver is the latest in a long string of recent public corruption investigations and arrests led by the office of U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara in New York.
For New Yorkers, the Silver arrest is compelling, but just another example of a corrupt political climate that has seen more than 30 elected officials from the state legislature and New York City Council face indictment, arrest, conviction or resignation under a cloud of suspicion. A Quinnipiac poll last summer revealed that a staggering 80% of New Yorkers believe that government corruption is a serious issue for the state.
Last month, Republican Congressman Michael Grimm plead guilty to tax evasion charges and subsequently resigned from Congress. In just ten years, New York has seen one governor resign for soliciting prostitutes, another not seek re-election after several scandals, the State Comptroller resign and serve time in prison and countless other officials from both parties forced from office for a wide range of charges. Those have included bribery, pay-for-play, tax evasion, perjury, burglary, sexual harassment, larceny, improper fraternization with interns, extortion, criminal mischief and others.
The New York Post estimates that in just the last few years, public corruption alone has cost taxpayers $50 million.
What ultimately happens to Silver is difficult to tell at this point, but his arrest is leaving many New Yorkers hoping that with new leadership, reform may be possible in the state with the highest tax and second worst economic climate in the nation. Coming out of the tax, spend, and regulate wing of the old Democrat establishment, the powerful Silver was often the chief impediment to spending cuts, tax cuts and even modest government reform proposals even those supported by members of his own party.
Should there be a leadership shift, it’s clear the public is looking first for real political reform to drain the swamp in the State Capitol and end the culture of corruption that has turned the Empire State’s government into a national joke.