By Bob Friedrich
There is no ‘Silver’ lining in this sordid tale of another New York elected official who has been caught up in a tangled web of corruption and self-dealing.
State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver was arrested by federal authorities last week and charged with a laundry list of criminal violations. Silver has reigned as speaker of the New York State Assembly for 20 of his 39 years in office, a period that has spanned the terms of four governors.
The criminal indictment against Speaker Silver last week was no surprise to many. The U.S. Attorney said it was “solely through the corrupt use of his official position” that he obtained close to $4 million in kickbacks disguised as “referral fees.”
Editorials have long decried the suspicious dealings within Silver’s inner circle, most recently his alleged cover-up and suspected secret payment of taxpayer “hush money” in the sexual scandal of fellow Assemblyman Vito “Gropez” Lopez. I wrote about Silver and corruption in the Times Ledger in 2012 (“Your Voting Power Can Clean Up Albany of Corruption”).
Like many others, local civic leaders who are reduced to pleading to legislators for leftover scraps of state and city money for their communities have wondered what exactly Speaker Silver does to earn millions of dollars over and above his Assembly stipend?
U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara answered that question last week, announcing that: “The head-scratching can come to an end on that score because we answer that question today. He does nothing.”
Bharara continued, “New Yorkers have asked, ‘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 service his constituents?’ Today we provide the answer: He didn’t.”
Bharara, a Sikh American, has put numerous elected officials in jail and has demonstrated incorruptible credentials by rooting out corruption one elected official at a time. In a recent On Point column (“Bharara Should Keep Up the Good Work Fighting Corruption”) I called him New York’s knight in shining armor and urged him to one day run for mayor.
Bharara’s investigations like a burst of fresh air have cleared away decades of corruption, unearthing a plethora of grotesque offenses allegedly committed by Silver dating back to 2002 such as accepting kickbacks for steering real estate law firms doing business with the state to a law firm run by a former aide; funneling state grant money to bribe or reward physicians who passed along names of 9/11 victims exposed to asbestos; steering these mesothelioma patients to a law firm specializing in asbestos cases so he could collect millions in “referral fees.”
Silver is neither a doctor nor an asbestos-litigation specialist and clearly lacked expertise to direct these patients in a way that best served their interests. Instead, his alleged scheme was a heartless exploitation of families at their most vulnerable by inducing cancer patients to retain a law firm that paid him kickbacks, rather than what may have been in their best interest.
Bharara explained, “These charges go to the very core of what ails Albany… an overabundance of greed, cronyism and self-dealing” and stated that Silver “cleverly” sought out schemes to “monetize” his office while camouflaging kickbacks and bribes as referral fees in a “show-me the-money culture.”
What does this reveal about the current crop of elected officials that have propped him up for years despite the open secret of his self-dealing caches of “outside income?”
It’s preposterous that they would believe Silver’s first priority was to serve New Yorkers, rather than the special interests that paid him millions! Voters rightfully should ask why their elected officials remained silent, enabling this culture of corruption.
When asked about the indictment, Mayor Bill de Blasio said he “does not believe Mr. Silver should step down. Allegations are allegations, charges are charges, and there has to be a process to determine the outcome.”
Ironically, the same deference was never offered to police officers accused of alleged misconduct. When former Republican Congressman Michael Grimm was indicted on corruption charges, de Blasio called for his immediate resignation.
This stunning cesspool of corruption becomes understandable when we see elected officials routinely elevating party loyalty above all else. Adding insult to injury, New York taxpayers are now on the hook for the millions of dollars that will be needed for Speaker Silver’s legal defense as well as his prosecution.
Bharara told us to “stay tuned” for more corruption cases in the wake of this indictment. Silver faces up to 100 years in prison, if convicted, while voters remain imprisoned by a system permeated with corruption and malfeasance by elected officials who have acted with impunity and hubris for far too long.