Silver Convicted: Now What?

The conviction of former Assembly speaker Sheldon Silver on seven federal corruption charges is as symbolic as it is substantive. Prosecutors working under U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara established that Silver had set up two elaborate schemes to use his public office and influence to enrich himself.

In one, he steered state money to a cancer researcher who referred mesothelioma patients to Silver’s law firm, which specializes in asbestos litigation. Silver collected millions in referral fees. In another, Silver convinced two real estate development firms to use a law firm that secretly shared referral fees with Silver for real estate tax challenges. Silver, in turn, was accessible to these firms and pushed legislation that they championed.

Although there was no explicit evidence of any bribery or quid pro quo, the prosecution established – and the jury found – that there was circumstantial evidence of at least an implied quid pro quo.

Mr. Silver’s lawyers argued that in charging him, Mr. Bharara’s office had sought to criminalize the kinds of activity in which state legislators routinely engaged.

That’s the problem.

Dean Skelos and his son are on trial right now. There are many more corrupt malefactors in Albany who engage in this sort of behavior, and many more indictments and convictions to be had.

Convicting Silver on this corrupt behavior is a great first step, but merely the tip of an iceberg. The question is whether his mandatory departure from the Assembly will embolden the Albany establishment to reform itself. I don’t think that’s at all bloody likely – it’s far more probable that they will try to placate a weary and disinterested electorate by enacting window-dressing pseudo-reforms but maintaining the status quo. They’ll try to get away with the bare minimum, and they will, because Albany politics is so remote and byzantine, and for most people they consider it only in the abstract. It’s a thing and a place that’s corrupt and we hate it, but most of us have no clue what, if anything, we can do about it.

Everyone can agree that reform is needed, but there’s little agreement on what needs to be done. As speaker, Silver wielded ridiculous power. He controlled the Assembly agenda. He demanded – and got – loyalty by threatening backbenchers. He was one of the three men in the room who ultimately control how the state budget is agreed-upon. When you get down to it, our entire state legislature is a farce – a show. It’s not a democratically elected deliberative representative body as much as it is a CGI projection of a crowd on a green screen behind the people who wield actual power.

It’s heartening that U.S. Attorney Bharara is taking public corruption seriously, and that Attorney General Schneiderman has, as well. But prosecutions can only catch illegalities after they happen. What we need to do is set up an Albany that acts like a legislature and a government is supposed to act in a civilized democracy. We need to make it much harder for this sort of graft and corruption to happen in the first place. Maybe we can downsize the legislature and ban outside income, making legislators full-time. Do we really need a state senate? Are there other structural reforms that we should be discussing and implementing in order to make Albany work for us, rather than vice-versa?

These are the challenges confronting this state, and symbolically, the conviction of Sheldon Silver shows us that change is possible.

However, the example of Joe Bruno shows us that change comes slowly and haltingly.

We can – and should – demand better from our state government, both elected officials and bureaucrats alike. Albany, however, is a morass of non-responsive automatons who mask their shrug-and-do-little reality behind ribbon cuttings and press releases. We pay a lot for the privilege of living in New York State. We deserve better.

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