Albany—It is undeniable that in his almost 40 years as a member of the State Assembly Sheldon Silver has helped millions of people through his support of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, the United Jewish Appeal, the crafting and passing of the so-called “Agunah Law” and support of the DREAM act for a Tuition Assistance Program—to name just a few good deeds he managed to make happen.
The 35-page criminal complaint against the now former all-powerful Speaker of the New York State Assembly lists five counts which include “using the power and influence of his official position to obtain for himself millions of dollars of bribes and kickbacks masked as legitimate income,” as well as mail fraud, wire fraud and extortion.
JLBWC was told that this was no surprise to fellow Democrat, Thomas Zugibe, District Attorney of Rockland County and member of the disbanded Moreland Commission—an act that arguably led to the federal investigation in the first place. “A central focus of the (Moreland) Commission was the investigation of outside income by certain lawmakers, and that included the house speaker,” Zugibe told JLBWC.
When, in 2013, the Moreland Commission began investigating outside income earned by Silver and other state legislators, they discovered Silver earned $250,000 more in outside income from the practice of law than any other member of the Legislature in 2012, and Silver simply refused to cooperate with the Commission. That led to the Commission issuing subpoenas to the law firm from which Silver claimed to have worked, and firms employing other legislators who had refused to cooperate.
Around this time Silver “caused the Assembly to file a motion in New York State Supreme Court to quash the Moreland Commission’s subpoenas related to Assembly members’ outside income including the subpoena to a law firm for which Silver claimed he worked.”
In February of 2014, Silver said in a press conference that the Moreland Commission was “engaged in a fishing expedition to intimidate legislators” and had exceeded its mandate and otherwise abused its power.
Then on March 29, 2014, Governor Andrew Cuomo, who formed the Commission, announced that as part of budget negotiations, he ended the Moreland Commission, and in exchange, the Legislature agreed to certain changes in campaign finance reporting requirements and bribery laws, and to experiment with public financing of elections in that year’s race for State Comptroller.
In April, Federal prosecutor Preet Bharara requested the received files and documents the Moreland Commission had collected and began the federal investigation. Zugibe told JLBWC, “I am grateful that the United States Attorney has continued the unfinished work of the Moreland Commission.” They also involved the FBI.
Silver’s lawyers, Joel Cohen and Steven Molo said, “We’re disappointed that the prosecutors have chosen to proceed with these meritless criminal charges. That said, Mr. Silver looks forward to responding to them—in court—and ultimately his full exoneration.”
Most of the 27 Assembly members from Rockland County, Westchester County and the Bronx were reticent in commenting about Silver to JLBWC when the charges were announced wanting to learn more before making any comments.
Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz of the 81AD said, “The charges in the complaint against Speaker Sheldon Silver are serious and disturbing, but they are just that: charges. Sheldon Silver is entitled to the same due process and presumption of innocence as every other American. We have heard the allegations but have not yet heard the other side.”
Assemblyman Thomas Abinanti of the 92AD said, “I think you’re going to hear the same thing from most of us and that is we (the Democratic Conference) by and large strongly believe that a person is innocent until proven guilty. As history has shown we have to wait to see what the facts are.”
Abinanti named several people who had been charged, convicted but then exonerated. “Mel Miller (speaker from 1987 to 1993) was convicted. He gave up office, gave up being an assemblyman and on appeal the charges were thrown out so the prosecutor ruined the career of an Assembly member and deprived the people of the State of New York of a good leader.
“Joe Bruno, he’s in the other political party, he’s a Republican, I’m a Democrat, was indicted, tried, convicted. The case was thrown out on appeal. They tried him again, he was acquitted.
“Secondly, I think we need an experienced and decisive leader at this time. The budget has been released and we’re commencing budget negotiations. It would be detrimental to the Assembly and the people of the State of New York to lose an experienced and skillful leader when we need him the most.” He said that to expect another person dropped into the middle of an ongoing process can be expected to perform as well, but such support was hardly universal.
Assemblyman Steve Katz of the 94AD said, “During the past two votes for Speaker of the Assembly I have voiced my concerns, discontent, and outrage that my Democratic colleagues have allowed Sheldon Silver to be nominated, let alone elected. Since the Vito Lopez scandal and even stemming as far back as the Michael Boxley rape charge, this man has proven time and again that he lacks a conscience. The Daily News has reported that he has received over $6,000,000 in bribes and kickbacks stemming from his corrupt actions and abuse of power in his position as Speaker.”
In talking to JLBWC before the Speaker stepped down, Katz said, “This seems to be the worst kept secret in New York for quite some time now. In order to begin to fix our state, the Speaker must resign immediately, and those who continued to elect him to this position of power must realize that they too have brought further shame upon our state and our government. Those who voted for him must examine themselves, as well, because if they voted for Sheldon Silver knowing that this alleged abuse of power was going on, they’re cowards or idiots, and they should join the leader they voted for in resigning.”
By Anne Phyllis Pinzow