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The Trial of Sheldon Silver and the Corruption of New York State
Who is Sheldon Silver? Mr. Silver, 71, is an assemblyman from the Lower East Side of Manhattan. He was elected speaker of the New York Assembly in 1994, and for years was the most powerful Democrat in the Legislature. As speaker, he was one of the state’s “three men in a room” who, along with the governor and the Senate majority leader, control how New York’s roughly $150 billion budget is allocated, and control what legislation is considered. He gave up his role as speaker not long after his arrest.
Q. and A.: The Trial of Sheldon Silver

Who is Sheldon Silver?

Mr. Silver, 71, is an assemblyman from the Lower East Side of Manhattan. He was elected speaker of the New York Assembly in 1994, and for years was the most powerful Democrat in the Legislature. As speaker, he was one of the state’s “three men in a room” who, along with the governor and the Senate majority leader, control how New York’s roughly $150 billion budget is allocated, and control what legislation is considered. He gave up his role as speaker not long after his arrest.

Why was Mr. Silver arrested?

Mr. Silver was charged in January with obtaining illicit payments disguised as legitimate income from working part time as a lawyer. The federal charges against him accuse him of abusing his position as one of Albany’s most powerful gatekeepers for personal gain. Prosecutors have claimed he received kickbacks from two law firms, including Weitz & Luxenberg, where he was listed as “of counsel” during part of his time as speaker.

For example, he directed $500,000 in state money to an oncologist, who sent victims of asbestos exposure to Weitz & Luxenberg, which in turn paid Mr. Silver hundreds of thousands of dollars.

What has Mr. Silver said about the charges against him?

Mr. Silver has not wavered from his position that he has done nothing wrong. “I’m confident that after a full hearing and a due process, I will be vindicated,” he said after his arrest. This year, in an interview with The New York Times, he reiterated this sentiment. “I’ve hired lawyers, paid them, and they will do their job,” Mr. Silver said.

Why have so many Albany lawmakers been arrested over the years?

Albany, government watchdogs have said, is not unlike the Wild West. Lax personal financial disclosure laws, they have argued, give corrupt legislators a way to mask political payoffs under the guise of part-time jobs. Politicians have also been able to use their campaign funds to pay for personal and legal expenses; in 2013, one lawmaker paid for a drunken driving fine with campaign funds. For the most part the business of the state is conducted behind closed doors without public input. Many politicians in Albany are law abiding, but these factors have contributed to an anything-goes culture in Albany, critics said.

Why is the Silver case important?

In some respects, Albany itself is on trial. Court papers suggest that the Silver case will cast a harsh spotlight on Albany’s culture, and some observers say it may force lawmakers to rethink how they have been doing business. The 2015 legislative session was anemic, in part because lawmakers appeared hesitant to cut deals in the months after the arrest of Mr. Silver, and the arrest in May of another major figure, Dean G. Skelos, then the leader of the State Senate. He, too, was accused of political corruption, and has pleaded not guilty.

What happened to the Moreland Commission, the panel Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo set up to root out political corruption?

Mr. Cuomo established the Moreland Commission in 2013. He then abruptly shuttered it just nine months later as part of a budget deal with Mr. Silver and Mr. Skelos that included some modest improvements in state ethics laws. His decision to close the commission in March 2014 set off a firestorm of criticism.

Federal prosecutors began an investigation into the roles of Mr. Cuomo and his aides in the shutdown and are pursuing the commission’s unfinished business, which included an investigation into Mr. Silver. The status of the inquiry into Mr. Cuomo and his aides is not known.

What has Mr. Cuomo said or done on ethics reform since Mr. Silver’s arrest?

Just weeks after Mr. Silver’s arrest, Mr. Cuomo vowed he would not sign a budget that did not include additional ethics reforms. He signed the budget, and achieved some additional ethics reforms. For instance, lawmakers who are lawyers will be forced to reveal, with some exceptions, the names of their clients; in addition, politicians who receive a flat fee from a law firm for advice will now have to list the “principal duties” they performed for compensation.

Still, good government groups criticized the ethics package as incremental. On July 23, on “The Capitol Pressroom,” a public radio show, Mr. Cuomo said that “you can’t legislate morality and you can’t legislate intelligence” and that his administration has “proposed every ethics law imaginable.”

What happens if a jury finds Mr. Silver guilty?

If Mr. Silver is convicted, he would forfeit his Assembly seat, and could face as much as 20 years in prison on six of the seven counts in the indictment, but is likely to receive a shorter sentence.

In Two Corruption Cases, the Culture of Albany Will Go on Trial

In separate federal courthouses in Lower Manhattan this month, two of the most powerful men in New York are about to go on trial, an extraordinary spectacle centering on allegations of corruption, bribery and nepotism in the state’s highest chambers of political power.

But even as the men, Assemblyman Sheldon Silver, the former speaker, and State Senator Dean G. Skelos, the former majority leader, fight the charges and try to restore their reputations, something else will also be on trial: the culture of Albany, the state capital.

Court papers in the two cases suggest that testimony in Federal District Court will expose in granular detail what watchdog groups say is a seamy world where big money and politics have long intersected with government.

There are accounts of kickbacks disguised as legitimate income; no-show jobs for a lawmaker’s son; and the use of state money to influence a doctor to refer clients to a favored law firm that, in turn, paid millions of dollars to a lawmaker.

The alleged acts are typical of a culture, according to the watchdog groups, that has made Albany practically synonymous with corruption and stubbornly resistant to reform, keeping citizens — and even most lawmakers — in the dark about much of the legislative work and spending done in their names.

For more than two decades, Mr. Silver and, for a lesser period, Mr. Skelos, have presided over the machinery making up, along with the governor, the so-called three men in a room who have historically controlled much of the state’s policy and legislative and budgeting decisions.

The two trials — Mr. Silver’s case is to begin on Monday with jury selection, and the case against Mr. Skelos, who is going on trial with his son, Adam, is scheduled to start on Nov. 16 — could run as long as six weeks each, so they will probably overlap for about a month. Never before have two lawmakers of their stature gone on trial at the same time in New York.

The trials come after roughly 18 months of intensive investigations by a large team of federal prosecutors in Manhattan, their investigators and agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. They zeroed in not only on Mr. Silver, a Democrat, and Mr. Skelos, a Republican, but also on up to a dozen other lawmakers from both parties. Some of those inquiries are still underway.

This focus on Albany has already had a chilling effect in the Capitol and contributed to what was an anemic legislative session this year. Some lawmakers said this occurred, in part, because of their concern that investigators may view the normal, transactional nature of politics in Albany as crimes of corruption. And some lawmakers complain privately that the federal scrutiny has tainted the state’s many honest public servants.

The arrests of Mr. Silver and Mr. Skelos, in January and May, also refreshed perennial calls to clean up Albany — just as a spate of lawmaker arrests did in 2013, prompting Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to form an anti-corruption commission. Yet this year’s session ended with the enactment of reforms that government watchdogs said fell short. Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat, said in July that he felt his administration had “proposed every ethics law imaginable,” and, ultimately, his administration could not legislate morality or intelligence.

Mr. Silver, 71, who rose through the political clubhouse system in Lower Manhattan, was first elected to the Assembly in 1976, obtained the powerful job of speaker in 1994 and ruled like a czar. Cautious, canny and laconic in the extreme, he began his legal career in private practice, then went to work for a State Supreme Court justice in Manhattan. Known as a pragmatist and a formidable negotiator, Mr. Silver speaks in a singular graveled monotone. He lives in a modest apartment building on Grand Street on the Lower East Side.

Mr. Silver’s defense has largely centered on his position that he complied with disclosure requirements and that the conduct alleged by the government does not amount to a crime.

“I’m confident,” he has said, “that after a full hearing and a due process, I will be vindicated.”

Mr. Skelos, 67, who has a reputation as a partisan brawler, lives in Rockville Centre in Nassau County, where he grew up. He is the son of a baker and a steadfast Republican mother who worked on the 1948 presidential campaign of Thomas E. Dewey. He was elected to the State Senate in 1984, and has been the Republican leader there since 2008.

A pretrial motion filed by G. Robert Gage Jr. and Christopher P. Conniff, the lawyers for Mr. Skelos and his son, seems to suggest that part of their defense could be that the senator’s son made “admittedly false or seriously exaggerated statements to his employer” about what his father was doing on the company’s behalf.

After his arrest on May 4, Mr. Skelos said, “I know that I will be found not only not guilty but innocent.” He added that he had “absolute confidence and respect for our judicial system,” saying, “That’s why I will be found innocent and my son will.”

Both lawmakers and the senator’s son have pleaded not guilty. Mr. Silver faces charges that include honest services fraud and extortion under the color of official right, and Mr. Skelos has been charged with conspiracy to commit honest services fraud, extortion under the color of official right and bribe solicitation. Their lawyers have suggested separately that the prosecutions — led by the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara, an outspoken critic of what he has called “the show-me-the-money culture of Albany” — have amounted to overreaching. They have accused Mr. Bharara of leaks to the press and inappropriate public statements about the cases.

An Enduring Problem

The charges against the two men fall in line with generations of senior legislators in Albany, where corruption has endured for more than a century, with four previous Senate majority leaders and three speakers indicted. When Mr. Cuomo was elected governor in 2010, he vowed to restore integrity, a task that has eluded him so far.

The governor’s creation of the anti-corruption panel in 2013, known as the Moreland Commission, brought high hopes; it began to uncover what many of its members believed were the institutional problems forming the bedrock of Albany’s troubled culture.

Among them were two broad issues that are expected to figure prominently in both trials: ineffectual campaign finance laws that give moneyed interests — especially large real estate developers — outsize influence; and lax financial disclosure rules that allow corrupt lawmakers to list part-time jobs or consulting work to mask political payoffs. Often, this work is listed at law firms that represent clients with business before the state. These laws and rules, largely written by the lawmakers themselves, are seldom enforced.

The cases against Mr. Silver and Mr. Skelos, who remain in office but who gave up their leadership positions after their arrests, were among several investigations that either grew out of or were spurred by the work of the Moreland Commission, which Mr. Cuomo abruptly shuttered in March 2014, outraging good-government groups. He closed it in a deal to pass modest ethics reforms that year, but the move led Mr. Bharara’s office to examine the shutdown and the governor’s role in it. The status of that investigation is unclear.

A successful real estate development company that was a focus of the commission’s investigation into campaign finance issues and is a significant figure in state political circles is expected to be a central player at both trials. The developer, Glenwood Management, relies heavily on lucrative state tax breaks and government financing to build and operate luxury apartment buildings in New York City. And it is one of the most prolific campaign donors in the state, giving money to both Republicans and Democrats, often through a loophole in state law that allows companies to give almost unlimited contributions through limited liability companies.

Prosecutors in the case against Mr. Skelos have contended that the developer funneled a $20,000 payment to the senator’s son and helped him get work as a consultant at an environmental technology company, a field in which he had no experience. They are expected to present evidence, including testimony from a Glenwood executive and a lobbyist for the company, that the senator pressured the developer to help his son and the developer did so because of concerns that Senator Skelos would take action to hurt the company.

Two lobbyists for Glenwood are expected to testify at Mr. Silver’s trial. The prosecutors have also alleged that Mr. Silver used his official position to get Glenwood to send its tax certiorari business to a small Manhattan law firm headed by a lawyer who served as Mr. Silver’s counsel decades ago. That firm then paid Mr. Silver hundreds of thousands of dollars in what prosecutors have called kickbacks.

Outside income earned by legislators is another area that will figure prominently in the trials, and the cases could have far-reaching consequences if one or both of the men are convicted.

New York legislators and some other officials are required to file annual financial disclosure statements detailing their outside income, finances and assets that may indicate a conflict of interest. This outside income and lawmakers’ disclosure forms — or, as prosecutors have contended, the lawmakers’ incomplete or misleading forms — have come up in the pretrial motions in both cases.

For years Mr. Silver was listed as “of counsel” at Weitz & Luxenberg, a New York City law firm. Mr. Skelos held the same title at Ruskin Moscou Faltischek, a Long Island law firm.

Both men listed those positions on their annual disclosure forms, but the disclosures revealed next to nothing about what their jobs entailed or the identities of their clients. Mr. Silver has said publicly that he was a personal injury lawyer who represented “plain, ordinary, simple people.”

But prosecutors have charged that he has received nearly $5.4 million in income from Weitz & Luxenberg since late 2002 — $3 million of it through a “corrupt scheme” — and performed no work “whatsoever” for the firm. The charges also say he did no work for the tax certiorari law firm, Goldberg & Iryami, but it paid him an additional $700,000, though the firm was not listed on Mr. Silver’s disclosure forms. Mr. Silver has said all of the payments were legitimate referral fees.

As for Mr. Skelos, the government has said in a pretrial motion that the senator’s public statements about his law practice are at odds with the facts. Ruskin Moscou, where the senator worked from 1994 until he took a leave of absence after his arrest, has paid him $2.6 million during his time there, although he did no legal work and was instead compensated for referring clients, according to the motion.

When the trials conclude, the outcomes for Mr. Silver and Mr. Skelos will be simple: guilty or not guilty, prison or freedom. For the political culture of Albany, however, it will likely be more difficult to divine, regardless of the juries’ verdicts.

Good-government advocates and reform groups hope the trials will attract the public’s attention, energize voters and spur change.

Seymour P. Lachman, a former dean of the City University of New York who served five terms in the State Senate and was one of the authors of a 2006 book about corruption and dysfunction in Albany called “Three Men in a Room: The Inside Story of Power and Betrayal in an American Statehouse,” believes reform is possible.

“These issues impact on the American democracy in terms of how we’re thought of and how we’re respected,” he said, “not only in the state and the nation, but in the world.”

A version of this article appears in print on November 2, 2015, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: Albany Culture Is Put on Trial in Graft Cases.

© 2003 The E-Accountability Foundation