By Lincoln Anderson
A political tsunami hit Lower Manhattan and all of New York state Thursday as Sheldon Sheldon, the powerful speaker of the Assembly, surrendered to the FBI on multiple corruption charges.
According to U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, Silver’s alleged crimes include accepting kickbacks from a real estate law firm and engaging in a quid-pro-quo scam involving asbestos patients and state funding.
“These charges in our view go to the very core of what ails Albany,” Bharara said at a press conference. “Lack of transparency, lack of accountability and lack of principle, joined with an overabundance of greed, cronyism and self-dealing.”
Silver, 70, turned himself in at 26 Federal Plaza at 8 a.m. Thursday.
“I hope I’ll be vindicated,” he told reporters.
Silver, who grew up on the Lower East Side and represents Lower Manhattan’s 65th Assembly District, has been the powerful Assembly speaker for the past 20 years.
He has now been charged with five counts of corruption, extortion and fraud, each carrying a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.
He is accused of two separate schemes occurring over the past decade. In the first, he allegedly was paid $700,000 to direct real estate developers with business before the state to a real estate law firm run by his former general counsel.
In the second, he is accused of funneling $500,000 in state grants to a doctor who, in turn, referred asbestos patients to Weitz and Luxenberg — the law firm where Silver is a personal-injury lawyer — which in turn then paid Silver $5.3 million in “referral fees,” according to Bharara.
However, investigators could not find evidence of Silver having done any actual work to earn those millions of dollars, and none of the allegedly ill-begotten cash was accounted for on Silver’s required financial disclosure forms, the U.S. attorney said.
Over the years, Silver was famously well known for resisting efforts to force him him reveal any information about how he made his outside income. He has said that he earns more than $650,000 per year from the law firm, though exactly how he earned that was always shrouded in secrecy. His government salary is $121,000.
According to reports, Bharara said warrants have now been issued to allow the federal government to seize $3.8 million in fraudulently acquired cash that Silver has deposited in six different accounts in six different banks.
The investigation originally grew out of the Moreland Commission, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s anticorruption panel, which focused, in particular, on probing Albany legislators’ campaign finances.
Silver and other legislators took legal action to prevent the commission from probing into their affairs.
Cuomo abruptly shut down the panel last year, but Bharara’s office continued its investigations, including its probe of Silver. The U.S. attorney indicated more individuals may be charged in connection with the investigations. A total of 18 law firms were reportedly subpoenaed.
News of Silver’s imminent arrest was first reported early Thursday morning in a New York Times article.
State Sen. Brad Hoylman (D-Manhattan) said Silver must step down.
“Another shameful day in Albany,” Hoylman tweeted shortly after 7 a.m. Thursday. “When should be discussing State of the State, we are mired in state of corruption. Public deserves better.”
He followed that up with another tweet soon after:
“Speaker Silver should resign for the good of the people of New York.”
On Wednesday night, Cuomo had given his State of the State speech, with Silver seated right beside him.
Democratic District Leader Paul Newell, who ran against Silver in 2008 in a Democratic primary race, issued an early-morning e-mail statement on Silver’s “imminent arrest.”
“If the report in The New York Times is true, this is a sad day for Lower Manhattan and a sad day for New York,” Newell said.
“I can’t speak to the specific charges against the speaker, but I can say that outside income for legislators is a certain recipe for corruption. Speaker Silver and Majority Leader Skelos should have banned it long ago. The 65th Assembly District, and all New Yorkers, deserve better.”
Asked if he thought Silver should resign, Newell said, “If the allegations are true, certainly. If not, he has the right to defend himself.”
In the wake of the shocking news, Mayor Bill de Blasio voiced support for the Assembly speaker, calling him “a man of integrity,” and saying that he was owed “due process.”
Similarly, two of Silver’s longtime Assembly colleagues from Manhattan, Deborah Glick and Richard Gottfried, stressed that Silver has not been convicted of anything, while effusively praising him for his work in the Assembly. Gottfried said that, in his view, Silver is in fact a political hero.
“Speaker Silver is presumed innocent until proven guilty, like every American,” Gottfried said in a statement to The Villager. “A criminal complaint is an accusation; it is not evidence.
“I have confidence that Speaker Silver, with the strong support of the Assembly majority, will continue to do the job of working for a progressive agenda while the current charges are being resolved. New Yorkers need Speaker Silver and the Assembly majority doing that job.
“There is no one in public life in New York who has fought more effectively, for decades, for almost everything I care about in public policy than Sheldon Silver.”
Meanwhile, Glick told The Villager: “There are constitutional protections that apply to everyone, from the highest person to the lowest person. Those include the presumption of innocence. And I’ve been sworn to uphold the Constitution of the United States and the State of New York.
“I haven’t read the full complaint,” she said. “It’s a criminal complaint — not an indictment.”
Glick added of Silver, “Obviously, he’s been upholding Democratic principles in this state.”
Ticking off just a few of the key issues that Silver has been on the right side of, Glick noted that he backed “a woman’s right to choose, marriage equality, the Campaign for Fiscal Equity” — the successful effort to ensure that New York City got its fair share of the state’s education funding.
“So he’s entitled to the presumption of innocence,” she said.
Unlike Silver, neither Glick nor Gottfried, during their many years in elected office, has ever worked outside jobs to supplement their Assembly income.
Hoylman, for his part, has previously called for “serious new restrictions” on state politicians’ outside income.
In an editorial, The New York Times called for Silver to resign, calling it “incredible” that he could think of continuing to serve in his Assembly job while defending himself against bribery and kickback charges involving millions of dollars.