the city politic

Tallying the Damage From Sheldon Silver’s Arrest

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 09: New York Assembly speaker, Sheldon Silver attends Century 21 Department Store Expansion Ribbing Cutting Ceremony at Century 21 on April 9, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images)
Photo: Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images

The state of New York state politics is … convulsive.

This morning, Sheldon Silver, the speaker of the State Assembly, was arrested on corruption charges, hours after the Times broke the story — and barely half a day after Silver sat smiling onstage as Governor Andrew Cuomo delivered his 2015 State of the State address and was featured by the governor in humorous slides as one of the “Three Amigos” atop state government.

This is, to put it mildly, a huge development. Silver has ruled half the state legislature for two decades; he’s wielded enormous power in state budget negotiations; he played a large role in keeping state government functional during the chaotic reign of Governor David Paterson. Silver has survived episodic brushes with scandal before — covering for staffers and legislators who’d sexually harassed or abused women, the guilty plea of a close friend who’d stolen more than $1 million from a Jewish charity. Being arrested himself and accused of receiving millions in bribes and kickbacks is, obviously, trouble on an entirely different scale for Silver. 

And not just Silver. It’s tempting to do insta-analysis of the ramifications. Yes, because Silver has been such a stalwart for public-school funding and the teachers unions, this probably helps the cause of charter schools; it emboldens the chronically irrelevant Assembly Republican minority; it strengthens the hand of the Senate Republican majority; it somewhat impedes Mayor Bill de Blasio’s agenda, because the mayor had come to rely on Silver’s aide and counsel in Albany.

Probably. The more likely scenario is limbo. Silver hasn’t spent 39 years in office, and 20 of them fiercely holding onto one of state government’s pinnacles of power, to resign tomorrow. He is famed for his mumbly-rumbly style of speaking and his non-committal to the last-minute style of negotiation. He’ll no doubt fight the charges and do everything possible to hold onto his speakership.

The damage is already spreading, though. The expansive nature of Cuomo’s speech yesterday was in part an attempt to put behind him an inglorious 2014, especially the ripples from the governor’s abrupt shutdown of the Moreland Commission on ethics reform. So much for turning that page.

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, indignant about the governor’s actions last March, picked up the trail of Moreland’s aborted investigations and now has landed his biggest New York political punch. The charges against Silver center on the speaker’s alleged failure to report outside income — exactly the kind of ethical lapse that Moreland was supposed to probe.

Cuomo has said, repeatedly and vociferously, that he discontinued the commission purely because it had satisfied its mission, which was to pressure the legislature into passing tougher ethics laws. The governor’s critics, however, have claimed an additional motive: that Moreland was short-circuited because it was asking too many uncomfortable questions of Cuomo’s allies and colleagues.

Maybe there is no connection between the charges against Silver and the end of Moreland. Apparently a grand jury investigation of Silver’s outside income began in June, 2013, pre-dating the existence of the commission. But Preet Bharara’s aggressive exploration of Albany’s dubious dealings just added an uncomfortable, uncontrollable twist to the governor’s new year.

Tallying the Damage From Sheldon Silver’s Arrest