Brooklyn Boro

Sheldon Silver, NY power broker sent to prison, dead at 77

January 24, 2022 Michael Hill and Michael Balsamo, Associated Press, and Raanan Geberer, Brooklyn Eagle
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Former New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Brooklyn Law School graduate and one of the most powerful figures in state government for two decades before his conviction on corruption charges, has died in federal custody. He was 77.

Silver died Monday. The source could not discuss the matter publicly and spoke to AP on condition of anonymity.

The Manhattan Democrat, who told a judge he prayed he would not die in prison, had been serving a more than six-year sentence in federal prison.

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He was convicted of using his clout in state government to benefit real estate developers, who rewarded Silver by referring lucrative business to his law firm.

Before he was sent to prison but after he had resigned as speaker, there were cheers from a Brooklyn-Staten Island state legislator: then-Assemblymember and now-Congressmember Nicole Malliotakis. “For those of us who have long opposed Speaker Silver, this is a victory,” Malliotakis told the Brooklyn Eagle at the time.

 She called Silver “a roadblock” to reform and charged that the speaker singlehandedly blocked important pieces of legislation from coming to the floor for a vote. “If you’re not one of his loyalists, you can’t move forward,” she said. 

It was a sentiment shared by many, Republicans and fellow Democrats alike. In 2000, upstate Democratic Assemblymember Mike Bragman attempted to replace Silver as speaker, and lost his position as majority leader as a result.

In 2013, according to the Eagle, Silver came under criticism because he allegedly crafted a $103,000 secret settlement to end allegations of sexual harassment against Brooklyn Assemblymember Vito Lopez, who was also the Kings County Democratic chairman at the time. At the same time, he tried to force the assembly to consider expelling Lopez. Eventually, Lopez resigned — but the criticism of Silver continued.

Recently, Silver’s supporters have said he was in failing health recently and was susceptible to contracting COVID-19. 

Silver’s conviction ended a nearly four-decade career in the Assembly. He first won a seat representing Manhattan’s Lower East Side in 1976. Though he cut a low-key figure in the halls of the state Capitol, carefully parsing out comments in a baritone mumble, he was a consummate practitioner of Albany’s inside game.

He was elected Assembly speaker in 1994, a powerful position that put him on equal footing with the governor and state Senate leader when it came to making key decisions about annual budgets or major legislation.

In all, Silver served as speaker during the tenure of five New York governors, from Mario Cuomo to Andrew Cuomo.

He became known as an inscrutable and stubborn negotiator, blocking proposals so often he was sometimes called “Dr. No.” Some of his obstructionist reputation had to do with being the lone Democrat at the negotiating table during Republican Gov. George Pataki’s three terms, during which time the GOP also controlled the state Senate. But not all of it.

He helped scuttle former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s plan to locate a football stadium on Manhattan’s West Side. And he took the brunt of the blame for the collapse in 2008 of Bloomberg’s congestion-pricing plan for Manhattan, which would have charged electronic tolls for driving through the borough’s most highly trafficked neighborhoods.

Over time, he became a symbol of Albany’s much-maligned opaque style of governance and, ultimately, a target of federal prosecutors.

Prosecutors accused Silver of trading his influence for money. In one instance, they argued that Silver persuaded a physician to refer asbestos cancer patients to his law firm so it could seek multimillion-dollar settlements from personal injury lawsuits, a secret arrangement that allowed him to collect about $3 million in referral fees. In return, prosecutors said he directed hundreds of thousands of dollars in state grants to a research center run by the doctor.

His original 2015 conviction was tossed out by an appeals court after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that narrowed the definition of a corrupt act. He was convicted again at a second trial in 2018 tailored slightly to conform to the high court ruling.

In the part of his conviction that stuck, the court found that he had supported legislation that benefited real estate developers who were referring tax business to a law firm that employed him.

Silver gave up his leadership position following his arrest in January 2015 and lost his legislative seat upon his first conviction that November.

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