For the past 20 years, Sheldon Silver has been one of the three most powerful men in New York. Now he's in FBI custody.
According to a federal complaint filed by Robert Ryan, an investigator with the office of US Attorney Preet Bharara on Wednesday, Silver is being charged with five counts of corruption, mail fraud, wire fraud, and extortion charges. The complaint identified the charges as relating to nearly $6 million in outside income from two law firms Silver received since late 2002. Ryan said these payments came as a result of a "scheme" Silver masterminded where a real estate developer and doctor paid a law firm that employed him in exchange for favorable legislation, state grants, and other unspecified "official actions."
"To wit, Silver used the power and influence of his official position to obtain for himself millions of dollars in bribes and kickbacks masked as legitimate income earned by Silver as a private lawyer," Ryan said.
The extortion charges stem from allegations Silver used his position to stymie and ultimately shut down a corruption commission that was investigating his outside income.
To understand how massive this is, you have to understand how Albany, the capital of New York, works. It's pretty simple. The governor, the speaker of the Assembly, and the head of the state Senate run the show.
Silver is the speaker of the New York Assembly, the lower house of the state. The district he represents includes New York City's Lower East Side and Chinatown — parts of the city that have exchanged grit for hip during Silver's tenure in office.
And in the past 20 years, the names filling the other two roles have changed. Governors have come and gone. The leadership in the New York State Senate has been a complicated ordeal, with Democrats and Republicans rotating the post after reaching a post-slugfest share agreement.
Silver, however, has remained in the room, until now completely unfazed by the scandals around him. These charges will throw Albany into disarray. There is no succession plan in Silver's tightly controlled Assembly. He is Nos. 1, 2, and 3.
It's also important that a lot of critical measures for New York City — such as anything having to do with the Metro Transit Authority — must be approved by the state legislature.
The fact that Bharara, the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, is the one who filed charges should not be a comfort to Silver. Bharara is feared on Wall Street for bringing insider-trading cases. He has stumbled recently, but for the most part he shoots to kill.
The US Attorney's office started looking into Silver after Gov. Andrew Cuomo shut down a powerful anticorruption unit — the Moreland Commission — last year. Cuomo had created the body in 2013 to root out the dirtiest elements of Albany's notoriously dirty mess.
And for good reason. Albany politicians who have been accused of a litany of transgressions continue to work in the Capitol session after session. This is the kind of stuff that gives notoriously corrupt Chicago a run for its money.
State Senator Malcolm Smith is still being investigated for trying to rig the election for New York City mayor back in 2013 (officials are working on translating some wire taps that happen to be in Yiddish).
Former New York State Senator Pedro Espada is spending five years in jail for embezzlement. Former Assemblyman and New York State Comptroller Alan Hevesi got out of jail in 2012 after serving 20 months for his involvement in a pay-to-play scandal (he made friends with rapper Ja Rule and former Tyco CEO Dennis Kozlowski while he was in there).
Not all of these scandals have been about money. Former City Councilman Hiram Monserrate had been elected to the State Senate for only a month before he was accused of slashing his girlfriend across the face with broken glass in 2008.
Bharara will hold a news conference about the case at 1 p.m.
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