Pieces of Silver
The New York State Assembly has been in Democratic hands since the Democratic wave election of 1974. Since then, there have been five speakers of the Assembly. The current speaker, Sheldon Silver, has served more than half of that time, since 1994.
The list of New York Assembly speakers includes some great names, like Hamilton Fish II and Al Smith. But the list of speakers also includes some scoundrels, especially over the last 40 years.
Stanley Steingut was elected speaker in 1974, despite reports that he used his political connections to funnel money to his law firm and his two insurance firms. While speaker, Steingut was indicted by the Brooklyn district attorney on charges that he had promised a job in exchange for a contribution to his son’s New York City Council campaign. The indictment was ultimately dismissed on the ground that all of the alleged actions had occurred in Manhattan, and thus the Brooklyn D.A. lacked jurisdiction to prosecute. Although Steingut escaped criminal punishment, voters punished him at the polls, electing an insurgent to Steingut’s seat in 1978.
In 1991, Speaker Mel Miller was convicted of federal fraud charges related to a private real estate deal. He automatically lost his seat upon conviction, according to New York law, although his conviction was reversed on appeal. During his tenure, Miller vigorously opposed investigations into no-show jobs given to legislators’ friends, families and contributors, and actually asserted a violation of separation of powers when two legislators were indicted for paying campaign workers with state tax money.
Today, Assembly Speaker Silver was arrested on federal corruption charges alleging kickback and bribery schemes whereby Silver used his political and governmental power to feed business to allies in exchange for a hefty cut. This is on top of the income that Silver discloses, from the law firm of Weitz & Luxenburg. It has long been one of Albany’s great mysteries exactly what Silver does for the compensation he discloses. Silver himself maintains that Weitz & Luxenburg pays him to spend a few hours a week reviewing potential personal injury claims, referring those that “appear to have merit.”
New York State government is widely recognized as one of the most corrupt in the country, if not the most corrupt, and the power of the Assembly speaker is one of the keys to that corruption. The speaker is so powerful that law is not made in the sunlight, by legislators holding public hearings, but in back rooms – New York State government is famously run by “three men in a room” – the governor, the speaker and the majority leader of the Senate, cutting deals behind closed doors. Disclosure and transparency are minimal.
Another key to New York State’s corruption is gerrymandering. Legislative districts are drawn to minimize competition – each house of the legislature draws its own legislative lines. In a heavily Democratic state like New York, it takes no sleight of hand to ensure that the Democratic Assembly will remain Democratic. But the power of gerrymandering is proved in the Republican Senate – Republicans won control in 1938, and they have held it almost continuously ever since. Although voters adopted a provision last November that purported to reform the redistricting process, the measure was a “phony reform” that retains partisan control over redistricting.
Governor Andrew Cuomo ran on a platform of reform – as did one of his recent predecessors, Eliot Spitzer. Spitzer resigned after a prostitution scandal, having achieved no significant reform whatever during his 15 months in office.
Cuomo established a commission to investigate public corruption in 2013. The commission opened investigations into a number of state legislative leaders, including Speaker Silver, and Cuomo shut it down after less than a year. The United States Attorney in Manhattan responded by opening an investigation of his own – into the commission, into the commission’s investigative targets, and into Governor Cuomo’s alleged interference with the commission’s work.
It’s hard to say what it would take to clean up Albany if electing gubernatorial candidates who promise reform isn’t enough. Throwing the bums in jail one at a time hasn’t worked – we’ve been doing that for decades. Throwing Sheldon Silver in jail seems like a fine idea. Unfortunately, there’s no reason to believe that his successor won’t be just as corrupt as he is.