Dark Master of New York Politics Accused of Taking Millions in Bribes

From prostitutes to Twitter junk shots, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver watched as scandals felled his fellow New York lawmakers. Now he’s been arrested—but is he out?

One New York governor visited high-priced hookers. A congressman accidentally tweeted a picture of his penis to his followers. The state’s top financial officer was sent to prison. The Senate majority leader was convicted of accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars of bribes from a businessman. A senator was charged with diverting state aid from a Little League to his own cigar business. Another was charged with slashing his girlfriend’s face with a broken glass. A state lawmaker took bribes to pay for his legal counsel while on trial for bribery. State government ground to a halt for a month when Republicans and Democrats couldn’t settle who was in charge of the Senate. At least three lawmakers were busted for inappropriate relations with young staffers.

Over the last 20 years of New York state political scandals, each seemingly more baroque than the last, Sheldon Silver has remained, Sphinx-like, seemingly untouched by chaos, with his power as speaker of the state Assembly and one of the “three men in a room” who rule New York uninterrupted.

That is, until midnight Wednesday, when the 70-year-old Silver was arrested for allegedly collecting millions of dollars in bribes from real-estate and medical interests with business before the state of New York.

Before the New York City press corps Thursday afternoon, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara laid out an expansive indictment against Silver, who served as Assembly speaker since 1994 and as a lawmaker representing a slice of the still heavily Jewish Lower East Side since 1976. In the alleged scheme shocking for its brazenness, Silver is accused of taking more than $6 million in bribes and kickbacks for referring businesses to a law firm that employed him; sending hundreds of thousands of dollars in state money to a medical doctor who referred claims to Silver’s law firm; and helping real-estate developers who participated in his schemes win state tax breaks.

“The show-me-the-money culture of Albany has been perpetuated and promoted at the very top of the political food chain. And as the charges also show, the greedy art of secret self-reward was practiced with particular cleverness and cynicism by the speaker himself,” Bharara said. “Politicians are supposed to be on the people’s payroll, not on secret retainer to wealthy special interests they do favors for. These charges go to the very core of what ails Albany—a lack of transparency, lack of accountability, and lack of principle joined with an overabundance of greed, cronyism, and self-dealing.”

In Albany’s expansive understanding of ethics, lawmakers are allowed to have outside income and are not required to disclose who their clients are. But Bharara alleged that Silver fell afoul of even these laws, working in an area of the law in which he had no experience or knowledge and using only his influence of state government to collect millions in payment.

“For many years, New Yorkers have asked the question—how could Speaker Silver, one of the most powerful men in all of New York, earn millions of dollars in outside income without deeply compromising his ability to honestly serve his constituents?” Bharara added. “Today we know the answer. He didn’t.”

For decades, Silver has been the bête noire of New York conservatives and reformers alike. For the right, he was a convenient punching bag, an unabashed New Deal-style liberal. Carl Paladino, a one-time Republican gubernatorial nominee, compared Silver, an Orthodox Jew, to Hitler and the Antichrist.

But Silver, whose trademark Lower East Side growl was often delivered only slightly above a whisper, was a master in the dark arts of Albany politics. Former aides and lawmakers describe a negotiator with a seeming inability to panic or even hurry, someone who would wait until seconds before the last minute to cut a deal and who was one of the few politicians willing to take the heat of unfavorable press coverage. His members were fiercely loyal, largely because Silver took direction from them, not from the editorial boards and headline writers howling for change.

For the Mike Bloomberg administration, Silver was a black hole of progress. When interests throughout the city had been slowly brought along (or bought with Bloomberg’s billions) on items like congestion pricing for vehicles entering the central business district or a stadium on Manhattan’s West Side, Silver would put a halt to it in Albany.

For reformers who wanted a more transparent Albany, Silver was immovable if his members did not also want to go along. Former Mayor Ed Koch, a one-time protégé who spent the end of his life campaigning on the cause of independent redistricting, went to his grave calling Silver “the biggest enemy of reform” in the state and urging state Assembly members to overthrow him. They never did, perhaps remembering what happened the last time there was a revolt over Silver’s power in the Assembly: The speaker easily prevailed over his would-be plotters and then, once their plot failed, stripped them all of committee assignments and perks, and saw to it personally that they were subsequently drummed out of office.

But for liberals, Silver was a hero. It would be hard to find a labor union in New York not deeply indebted to him. Seniors and tenants live immensely better lives in the state thanks to Silver keeping the Republican-held Senate from having its way. Critics and supporters alike say Silver was able to keep a low profile for months, if not years, waiting for the right moment to strike to move his agenda forward. In the hours after the indictment was unsealed, the state’s Democratic establishment rallied to his side, with Assembly Democrats saying they continue to support him as speaker and Mayor Bill de Blasio calling him “a man of integrity.”

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“Since I’ve been in public life, three leaders of the legislature have been indicted, and all of them have been acquitted,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, whose district overlaps with Silver’s. “You shouldn’t penalize people for a charge which may be baseless, but you should punish them really if it turns out to be… I don’t think people’s careers should be destroyed because of an accusation.”

But in recent years, Silver’s operation has shown signs of wear. In 2008, he faced a spirited challenge from a pair of young reformers who gave him his closest race in his career. A close friend, and the husband of his longtime chief of staff, was sentenced to 10 years for bilking a major charity he ran. When The New York Times accused Silver of preventing low-income housing from being built in a barren part of his district, his office claimed that another Sheldon Silver, a long-dead workaday lawyer who lived and died in Brooklyn, was responsible. The defense was mocked for its absurdity.

Now those same qualities that helped Silver rise to power—opaqueness, an ability to keep his friends close but his enemies closer, and a respect for the dark arts of the Albany process—appear to be his undoing. But if Silver’s hold on power is slipping, Bharara’s role as Albany’s one-man vice squad is growing. He has already sent a handful of state lawmakers to prison, and last year he subpoenaed the records of the Moreland Commission, which Cuomo set up to investigate corruption in Albany and abruptly shut down once the governor got the legislature to agree to new ethics laws.

“A deal was cut that cut off the commission’s work, to the great relief of Sheldon Silver, who furiously fought its subpoenas and urged its shutdown,” Bharara said.

That comment, and the timing of the arrest, appeared to send a signal that Bharara had many more lawmakers in his sights. Only a few hours before he was arrested, Silver appeared on stage alongside Cuomo and was hailed by the state’s leaders, including the Assembly Democrats, who made him their speaker yet again.

Bharara said the arrest occurred only once all the evidence had been gathered, and that no one should read too much into the timing. But he hinted that there was more to come.

“Stay tuned,” he said.

Ben Jacobs contributed reporting.