One of the Most Powerful Politicians in New York Just Got Arrested for Corruption

On Thursday, Sheldon Silver, who has been state assembly speaker for two decades, turned himself in to the FBI.

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Jan 22 2015, 10:03pm

Photo via Flickr user Azi Paybarah

It's not very often that prominent politicians actually get arrested for corruption in America, but New York is not like the rest of the country. On Thursday, Sheldon Silver, who has been speaker of the State Assembly in Albany for two decades, turned himself in to the FBI. According to a criminal complaint and charges announced by US Attorney Preet Bharara, Silver leveraged his influence to rake in millions of dollars in kickbacks and bribes, leaning on his private-sector legal work to disguise the extra income. The Feds seized over $3 million of his assets Thursday morning and accuse Silver of funneling official money to a doctor in exchange for referrals of asbestos cases to his law firm, giving tax favors to a real estate developer, and collecting bribes disguised as referral fees.

Silver is officially charged with five counts of wire fraud, mail fraud, conspiracy, and extortion, but the question now is whether the politician's arrest is just the first in a series of takedowns of key players in New York.

"For many years, New Yorkers have asked the question: How could Speaker Silver, one of the most powerful men in all of New York, earn millions of dollars in outside income without deeply compromising his ability to honestly serve his constituents?" Bharara said. "Today, we provide the answer: He didn't."

It says something about this place that even after Silver's arrest, many New York Democrats are standing by their man, a testament to the speaker's ability to wield power with ruthless efficiency in one of the more dysfunctional legislatures in the country.

"Although the charges announced today are certainly very serious, I want to note that I've always known Shelly Silver to be a man of integrity, and he certainly has due rights and I think that we should let the process play out here," New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio told reporters at City Hall Thursday.

But Bharara has made a name for himself as a lone wolf willing to go after just about anyone. He first popped up on the national radar by taking on Wall Street criminals, the guys who usually evade the criminal justice system's clutches. Last year, Bharara stunned the New York political establishment by announcing that he was probing the closure of the Moreland Commission, a state corruption panel set up by Governor Andrew Cuomo that was subsequently shut down as part of a deal with the state legislature—to "the great relief of Sheldon Silver," as Bharara crowed at his press conference Thursday.

Silver has not yet been indicted by a grand jury, but even if he's convicted, history suggests the guy has a good chance of getting off. Last May, Joseph Bruno, a former majority leader of the State Senate, was cleared of wrongdoing over charges he used mail fraud to disguise illegal payments. Of course, by that time, he had been forced out of power. Silver will probably stick around a while, and can remain in the legislature until convicted.

No matter what happens, a high-profile corruption case like this one will make it that much harder for Cuomo and others playing the game in Albany to do their thing.

"For good or ill, scandals really help reform," says Zephyr Teachout, the Fordham law professor and corruption sage who unsuccessfully challenged Cuomo in last year's Democratic primary.

If Bharara wants to cause a major upset in how business is done in Albany, however, he'll probably have to go after even bigger fish.

"One of the great unanswered questions here is what's going on with the investigation of the Moreland Commission itself," says Richard Brodsky, a former member of the State Assembly and columnist at the Albany Times-Union. Bharara is still being coy about the precise relationship between the shuttered corruption panel—and, by extension, Governor Cuomo—and the charges against Silver. But he's embracing the drama, practically begging the political press to engage in some rife speculation in the weeks ahead.

"You should stay tuned," Bharara said Thursday.

Follow Matt Taylor on Twitter.

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