Years ago, sitting at a linoleum table in a kosher deli with a friend who had just been elected to political office, I asked him was it worth it? He shook his head and replied, somewhat incongruously, that politicians were people you would never invite to dinner if they didn’t have money to give out. He was learning to play the game. I finished my pastrami on rye, with mustard and cole slaw, and never ate another meal with him.
Sheldon Silver was one of the “three men in a room” that ran New York State. The other two were the governor and the Senate majority leader. The latter, Dean Skelos, is under indictment and on trial. The governor, Andy Cuomo, abruptly terminated a commission on corruption when it turned its attention to his fundraising. At the moment, there is only one man in the room, talking to himself. The rumor is that if Preet Bharara has his way, the room will be silent.
Shelly Silver, a Manhattan liberal, was convicted of seven counts of corruption.
Sheldon Silver, who held a seemingly intractable grip on power for decades as one of the most feared politicians in New York State, was found guilty on Monday of federal corruption charges, ending a trial that was the capstone of the government’s efforts to expose the seamy culture of influence-peddling in Albany.
The verdict was a quick and unceremonious end for Mr. Silver, who, during his more than two decades as the State Assembly speaker, displayed a Teflon-like quality in deflecting questions about his outside income as well as calls for his ouster.
This is by no means an apology for corruption, for selling the exceptional power Silver had over Albany, for using his “intractable grip” for his own personal financial advantage. But what the hell did anyone expect?
The New York Times, which often praised Silver’s liberal politics, especially when contrasted with the state senate’s convservative Republican control, has now turned on Shelly like a frothing dog.
[The verdict] should sound a loud alarm to all the players in Albany who have become so accustomed to the abuse of power that they can’t see how it infects every aspect of lawmaking. Or perhaps they have been perfectly happy to live with criminality because it suits them politically and financially.
If the lawmakers still don’t get the message, voters should take heed. It is well past time to throw out anyone who doesn’t fight for a complete change of that toxic culture. That means election reform with public financing of campaigns, an end to unlimited campaign contributions through limited liability companies, transparency on outside income, including more detail from lawyers about clients with state business, and ending the ability of state legislative leaders to essentially block ethics investigations.
If Albany suffers from a “toxic culture,” then it’s a product of the system. New York State officials are, putatively, part-timers, citizen-lawmakers, because it makes pundits at newspapers like the Times feel entitled to pretend that we’re less ugly than if we were a state run by professional politicians. It’s a total lie, of course. New York’s politicians are every bit as full time as the worst of any other state. We just don’t pay them well enough, so we allow them to earn outside income.
Is the pay so terrible? Not entirely, as the assembly speaker earned a regular salary of $79,500 plus per diem and some decent benefits. But this isn’t nearly enough for a guy who has to show up for dinner at galas, fundraisers and the occasional family holiday. He could spend that much on ties alone, given all the social events he’s required to attend. And then, there’s the issue of having to be re-elected every two years, so that the morning after an election begins the fundraising for the next election. It’s a grueling existence.
So what is a guy with enormous power over what laws make it to the assembly floor, over how the legislative slush fund gets spent, over which members get the requisite member money to buy their friends for the next election, to do? To observe that power corrupts is facile. Mix enormous power with the need for, the ability to, earn some outside cash and you have a system that can’t help but be corrupt.
One of the question asked at Shelly’s trial was whether there was a quid pro quo for his kicking Albany spare change to mesothelioma research:
Columbia University oncologist Dr. Robert Taub said he was introduced to the former Assembly Speaker in the 1980s through a mutual friend, Daniel Chill.
In 2003 Taub, upon the suggestion of Chill, began directing patients suffering from mesothelioma to Silver, who then referred them to the powerhouse law firm in Weitz & Luxenberg.
“I hoped to develop a relationship with him that would help fund mesothelioma research and help my patients,” Taub, 79, said, sporting a colorful bowtie and testifying under a non-prosecution agreement with the feds.
Silver was “of counsel” to Weitz & Luxenberg, and took his piece of the referrals. In personal injury law, this isn’t unusual, even if it is unethical when no work is performed. But then, how was Silver suppose to do common legal work when he was busy running New York State? Did anyone seriously think Shelly was filling out interrogatories?
“You did not engage in a bribery scheme to exchange patients for grants, did you?” Silver attorney Steven Molo asked.
“I did not,” Taub replied.
Guys like Shelly Silver don’t have to walk around explaining that the loot comes with the expectation that some of it goes into his pocket. Guys like Taub, or at least Chill, get the message without anything being said. That’s how corruption happens when you’re that powerful. Friends help friends. Maybe there’s a wink. Maybe not. The message is implicit.
So the New York Times contends that New York voters need to take this “toxic culture” into account, publicly fund elections, stop electing corrupt politicians to office, and that’s going to fix everything.
When he filed charges against Mr. Silver, Mr. Bharara said that if the former speaker is convicted, “how can we trust that anything that gets decided in Albany is on the level?” After Monday’s verdict, that is a very good question.
As if nobody knew this was how business got done in Albany until now.