State Integrity 2012

Published — January 22, 2015 Updated — Today at 5:42 pm EST

Complaint against New York Speaker highlights issues raised by Center project

Sheldon Silver, the speaker of the New York state assembly, was arrested on Thursday in Manhattan. Mark Lennihan/AP

Sheldon Silver charged with millions of dollars in alleged kickbacks

Introduction

New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a mythic figure in Empire State politics, was arrested Thursday on corruption charges, accused by federal authorities of accepting millions of dollars in bribes and kickbacks over more than a decade.

The case is just the latest and highest profile in a recent string of cases against New York officials. Lawmakers have been accused of falsifying expense reports and have been convicted of accepting bribes from a carnival manager. One recurring issue, which the Center detailed in a 2013 report, has been the use of nonprofit groups to direct state money to friends and family.

The charges against Silver, a Democrat, involve millions of dollars in alleged kickbacks that the lawmaker reported as outside income, highlighting an area of concern raised in the Center’s 2012 State Integrity Investigation, a data-driven ranking of state government transparency and accountability conducted in partnership with Global Integrity and Public Radio International. New York received an overall grade of D, and the report found the state’s conflicts of interest rules for the legislature to be largely ineffective, noting that asset disclosure forms were rarely audited.

Silver, who has been speaker for 21 years, turned himself in to authorities in Manhattan Thursday morning. “As today’s charges make clear, the show-me-the-money culture of Albany has been perpetuated and promoted at the very top of the political food chain,” said U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara.

Silver’s office declined a Center request for comment, but his attorneys Joel Cohen and Steven Molo issued a statement, saying they were “disappointed that the prosecutors have chosen to proceed with these meritless criminal charges.” The statement went on to say that “Mr. Silver looks forward to responding to them — in court — and ultimately his full exoneration.”

Silver has claimed his outside income is from services for clients that have no business before the state. The complaint filed in federal court challenges that claim, accusing Silver of receiving nearly $4 million since 2002 from two firms through “corrupt use of his official position.” The money included $3.2 million in referral fees for asbestos cases that prosecutors say Silver did not actually make, and nearly $700,000 in fees for steering two real estate developers to an unnamed law firm run by a former employee of Silver.

One of the unnamed developers has contributed more than $10 million to state politicians and committees since 2005, including $200,000 to Silver and a committee he controls, making it the largest donor in the state for the period, according to the complaint. That developer, who reportedly owns more than $1 billion in properties, receives tax abatements and subsidies under an affordable housing program and has lobbied Silver and the legislature on the program and related legislation.

The investigation was helped along by documents obtained from a now-defunct panel that Gov. Andrew Cuomo had appointed to dig into corruption in the legislature. The panel had issued a stinging rebuke of the legislature in December 2013, singling out outside income as one of several areas ripe for corruption.

Cuomo disbanded the panel last year after he won a package of reform measures from the legislature. Many good-government advocates criticized the reforms as weak, however, and they’ve expressed concerns that Cuomo dismantled the panel once it started investigating many of the state’s most powerful players, including some of his political supporters. After its demise, Bharara’s office sought to continue the panel’s work. Thursday’s complaint against Silver cites documents obtained as part of that probe. Silver was charged with five counts, each of which carries a maximum 20-year sentence.

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