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One of the Most Powerful Politicians in New York Was Just Found Guilty of Corruption

The only question is what kind of impact former State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver's fall will have on the way things get done in New York.
November 30, 2015, 10:47pm

Former New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver during better times. Photo via Flickr user Zack Seward

In Manhattan federal court on Monday, a Lower East Side politician named Sheldon Silver was found guilty of all seven counts against him. Just like that, one of the longtime pillars of what is probably America's most corrupt state was done.

After spending nearly 40 years in government, the former New York State Assembly Speaker was arrested earlier this year on charges of honest services fraud, extortion, and money laundering. The federal complaint from US Attorney Preet Bharara's office essentially accused the guy of repeatedly using his position for personal profit (he was also a private attorney). That scheme included a Columbia University doctor who referred clients to a law firm in exchange for state grants for research. It also centered on luxury developers who—through a secret retainer—indirectly did Silver the same favor; in the developers' case, the payoffs were lucrative tax breaks from the state.

It was your classic "pay to play" corruption: a politician using power to line his own pockets and lying about it routinely—a guy pretty much everyone thought they knew was corrupt. And through the five weeks of trial, the US attorney's office brought a ton of evidence against Silver to prove that point. Silver's defense team, on the other hand, simply argued that what their client did was just "politics as usual."

Now the the 71-year-old faces the possibility of decades in federal prison for his crimes, joining the increasingly crowded club of Empire State politicians to get caught on the wrong side of the law. The only question is how big of an impact Silver's fall will have on the way things get done in New York.

"Today, Sheldon Silver got justice," Bharara said in a statement issued soon after the verdict was announced. "And at long last, so did the people of New York."

Silver's downfall is a major victory for the prosecutor, who has made it his mission to DirtDevil the shit out of the Empire State. It was his office that picked up the pieces of the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption last year, after the subpoena-wielding body was shut down by its own creator, Governor Andrew Cuomo. (It is now pretty common knowledge that the reason for the shutdown had something to do with the Commission getting too close to Cuomo's own office in its probes.)

After the Commission was shut down, Bharara sprang into action, leveling two massive indictments: one against Silver, and another against his Senate Republican counterpart, Dean Skelos, who's still on trial himself. It felt like almost overnight, the US Attorney had single-handedly eliminated two of the "three men in a room"—a made-for-Frank-Underwood phrase that captures how, in Albany, Cuomo, Silver, and Skelos used to agree on budget deals in back rooms.

Even as Skelos's trial rages on, literally just around the block from where Silver met his demise on Monday, what Bharara has done is essentially convict the entire governing process in New York. With this verdict in mind, any deal that Silver touched in the past now firmly reeks of favors, subtle bribery, and straight-up corruption. The rest of Albany will most likely try to shun his legacy—it already seems like Silver's name has been swiped off his district's website—when, in reality, it was the broader political culture that took a big hit on Monday.

Of course, given this state's track record, it's hard to expect a massive turnaround after one conviction, splashy though it may be.

"Rats don't fall for the same trap twice," Janos Marton, a former Moreland Commission Special Counsel, told me over email after hearing the verdict. "Silver's successors in power may find different paths to the same corruption, and it's on all of us to stay vigilant."

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