Last week, former State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Lower Manhattan) escaped justice when a federal appeals panel overturned his conviction for accepting bribes and money-laundering.
Who is Sheldon Silver?
For over two decades as the leader of the State Assembly’s strong Democratic majority, Sheldon Silver established himself as one of New York’s most powerful Democrats. One of the legendary three men in a room, he negotiated on behalf of the Assembly with five different Governors (Mario Cuomo, George Pataki, Eliot Spitzer, David Paterson, and Andrew Cuomo) to decide which laws to pass and how much New York State would spend.
Silver was legendary or infamous, depending on who you ask, for keeping Democrats in line. While he exerted his power for generally progressive ends, critics accused him of blocking an affordable housing project in his district to keep out Chinese and Latino residents. He also was assailed for agreeing to legislation like ending the New York City commuter tax and weakening affordable housing regulations to keep suburban Democrats happy. Opponents also hinted that he may have been currying favor with real estate developers, too.
What was he convicted of doing?
In fact, those accusations were correct.
In 2015, the FBI arrested Silver and he was then convicted of seven counts, shocking Albany observers who had assumed him to be invulnerable. Over the years, he had earned money from a firm, Goldberg & Iryami, which represented real estate developers in property tax issues. Silver would get developers to hire Goldberg & Iryami and then receive a kickback. Even with Albany’s notoriously lax anti-corruption and disclosure rules, Silver did not report this income.
In addition, Silver secretly steered research grants to a Columbia University doctor specializing in mesothelioma, a cancer connected to asbestos. In return, the doctor referred patients to another law firm, Weitz & Luxenberg, where Silver was “of counsel.” Silver got paid for these new patients, even though he did none of the work.
So why was this overturned?
Last year, Supreme Court reversed the corruption conviction of former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, ruling that some of the charges like arranging meetings in exchange for gifts, did not constitute “official acts”. This made it significantly more difficult for prosecutors to convict politicians by raising the bar for something to count as corrupt.
While the appeals court ruled that Silver may have committed “official acts”, the jury may have also considered other behavior in convicting him. In addition, some of those official acts took place so long ago that they were outside the statute of limitations. Prosecutors had argued that more recent acts contributed to an ongoing pattern of behavior. However, the appeals court ruled that in the trial, the judge’s instructions in the case were insufficiently specific to help jurors distinguish.
Is this it for Silver?
Acting US Attorney Joon Kim (successor to Preet Bharara, who led the prosecution before being fired by Donald Trump) pledged to retry Sheldon Silver. He declared, “Although it will be delayed, we do not expect justice to be denied.”
However, even if Sheldon Silver manages to get off in a retrial, his power is still gone. He was forced to resign from the Assembly Speakership and his Assembly seat and will not be able to recover those positions.
What about the larger implications?
Leaders’ ability to earn additional income is also greatly diminished after the convictions of Silver as well as his Republican Senate counterparts Joe Bruno and Dean Skelos, though Bruno’s conviction was overturned and Skelos is trying to do the same. Both Senate Republican Leader John Flanagan (Long Island) and IDC Leader Jeff Klein gave up their law practices while Silver’s successor as speaker Carl Heastie did not earn any income outside his salary.
Regardless of the outcome of Silver’s trial, his conviction may have marked the end to legislators (easily) being able to profit off their position.
NOTE 8/1: This article originally stated that McDonnell v. United States was a few years ago; in fact the Supreme Court ruled on it last year (2016). We apologize for the error.