New York City

Feds: NY Assembly speaker Sheldon Silver masked bribes as legitimate income

January 22, 2015 By Tom Hays and David Klepper Associated Press
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver was arrested on corruption charges. AP Photo/Mike Groll
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New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver was arrested Thursday on charges he used his position as one of the state’s most powerful politicians to collect millions of dollars in bribes and kickbacks disguised as legitimate income.

The 70-year-old lawmaker was taken into custody at the FBI’s New York City office and released later in the day on $200,000 bail on federal charges that included bribery and conspiracy. The charges carry up to 100 years in prison.

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As he was released, Silver said he was “confident that after a full hearing and due process, I’ll be vindicated on the charges.”

In a criminal complaint, authorities said Silver abused his power and “obtained about $4 million in payments characterized as attorney referral fees solely through the corrupt use of his official position.”

The arrest sent shock waves through New York’s Capitol as a new legislative session began, and it came just a day after Silver shared the stage with Gov. Andrew Cuomo during his State of the State address.

Silver’s outside income has long been a subject of discussion and controversy. Last year, the New York City lawyer reported making up to $750,000 for legal work, mostly with the trial firm of Weitz & Luxenberg.

In 2013, New York’s anti-corruption commission began to investigate outside income earned by Silver and other state legislators. But the commission ran into resistance from Silver, and Cuomo shut down the panel last April.

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, the chief federal prosecutor in Manhattan, then took over the commission’s files.

“It is beyond time for Sheldon Silver to step down as Speaker of the Assembly,” Brooklyn assemblymember Nicole Malliotakis said in a statement. “The demands of running the chamber and serving the taxpayers cannot be compromised by charges of corruption and a judicial proceeding of this magnitude.  There is no doubt that New Yorkers desperately need and deserve new leadership of ‘the People’s House’.” 

As speaker of the Democrat-controlled Assembly, Silver is one of the most influential people in New York state government. Along with the Senate majority leader and the governor, he plays a major role in creating state budgets, laws and policies in a system long-criticized in Albany as “three men in a room.”

Assembly Democrats are supporting Silver and not seeking his resignation as speaker, Majority Leader Joe Morelle said. He said Silver had the backing of an “overwhelming” number of the chamber’s Democrats.

“We believe he can carry out his duties as speaker,” Morelle said, standing in front of about two dozen fellow lawmakers. “We’re going to stand with him. … We have faith in the speaker.”

Silver has gone toe-to-toe with five New York governors — from Mario Cuomo to his son Andrew — since early 1994, when he was selected Assembly speaker.

Silver was first elected to the Assembly in 1976, representing a district on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where he was born and still lives with his wife, Rosa.

A graduate of Brooklyn Law School and a practicing attorney, Silver has championed liberal causes in the Legislature, where he has used his position as a powerbroker to support teachers, trial lawyers and civil service unions.

But he has also seen more than his share of corruption and scandal in his chamber. Several Assembly members have been hit in recent years with criminal charges ranging from taking bribes to using campaign funds for personal expenses.

In 2003, Silver’s then-counsel, Michael Boxley, was convicted of sexual misconduct. Nine years later, Silver handled a confidential settlement of $103,000 in public funds for two women who said they were sexually harassed by their boss, then-Assemblymember Vito Lopez of Brooklyn.

After the details of the settlement went public, the Assembly speaker was criticized for his role. Silver later said the case should have been handled by the ethics committee.

UPDATE: On Thursday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio defended Silver, calling him “a man of integrity.”

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