|NY State Governor Andrew Cuomo With Sheldon Silver (right)|
Back in 2004, when Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver blocked passage of the state budget with a series of bizarre objections, a frustrated Gov. George Pataki confronted him: “Who is your client?’’ the governor demanded.
The showdown made headlines because of the clear insinuation that Silver, a Democrat, was using his official power to serve a private customer and enrich himself. That it took nearly 11 long years for prosecutors finally to make a case along those very lines reveals both the complexity of Silver’s alleged scams and Albany’s rotten pay-to-play culture.
The Empire State’s capital is corrupt to the core, and has been for a very long time. Virtually nothing happens there that isn’t driven by self-dealing. It is a cesspool unworthy of respect or trust and now stands naked in disgrace.
The roster of convicted crooks is approaching 40 public officials, but Silver’s case is unique. As speaker for 20 years, he was at the center of every piece of legislation written and every taxpayer dollar collected and spent. He ruled the Assembly like a private fiefdom, and, governors notwithstanding, he was called the most powerful man in the state for good reason.
Nothing moved without his say-so, and according to the federal charges, he turned that power into personal wealth. He “monetized public office,” Manhattan US Attorney Preet Bharara said, adding that Silver “amassed a tremendous personal fortune” of at least $3.8 million through kickbacks and bribery.
One series of charges says he traded $500,000 in taxpayer money for more than $3 million in private gain. He allegedly took cash from a state slush fund and gave it to a doctor, who referred asbestos cases to a law firm that illegally split its share of medical settlements with Silver.
Other charges involve a separate law firm, which paid Silver $700,000 over a period of years for helping developers lower their property taxes. That, says Bharara, meant Silver “was on retainer” to the developers.
Not once, prosecutors say, did Silver actually do any legal work. He was paid only for using his public power to help the law firms and their clients.
It’s only a slight stretch to say that Silver did most of his alleged thieving in plain sight. Most of the outside money, if not its sources, was publicly disclosed. The taint was screechingly obvious, yet nobody did anything about it.
Pataki’s 2004 challenge about a private client was prophetically on target, but no prosecutor had the guts to follow the money. Perhaps a belief that he was immune led Silver to get greedy — and sloppy. His outside income grew by leaps and bounds, reaching nearly $1 million in some recent years.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo certainly had an instinct for the truth and a great chance to reveal it. His Moreland Commission was focused on Silver’s ties to law firms when the governor abruptly shut it down in a deal with Silver and others. Bharara picked up where the panel left off, but remains furious at Cuomo and continues to probe his actions.
At the very least, the governor owes New Yorkers a serious explanation. I was a persistent advocate of the Moreland panel, and when he appointed one in June 2013, Cuomo told me in an interview he was “as serious as a heart attack” about rooting out corruption.
He boasted that he stocked the panel with “top-shelf law enforcement people” so that any dirt could lead to swift criminal charges. He promised it would trace campaign donations, legislation and pork-barrel spending to connect the dots to corrupt quid pro quos.
“It’s going to be a real follow-the-money investigation,” he said then. “We want to see who gives you money, the legislation you introduce and your member items.”
He was onto something big, but pulled the plug prematurely when lawmakers, who had fought the panel’s subpoenas, agreed to toothless ethics rules. It was the biggest mistake of Cuomo’s first term, and now his second term begins with a scandal.
Neither he nor we should think the last shoe has dropped. The 35-page federal complaint has several loose ends, including any connections to Silver’s repeated squashing of tort-law reforms, and cooperating witnesses may have the goods on other crooked officials.
Then, too, Silver is hardly a tough street brawler willing to shuffle quietly off to prison. He’s a 70-year-old pol who, if he sees no way out of his jam, will sing like a canary.
That would certainly please Bharara, who acts like a man with an appetite for more red meat.
“Our unfinished fight against public corruption continues,” he vowed yesterday. “You should stay tuned.”
He can count on that.