Call it a contemporary case study into classic old-school politics: the money, the characters, the powerful connections and backroom deals.
When the FBI arrested longtime Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver Thursday, charging one of the most powerful New York politicians in a generation with taking millions of dollars in bribes and kickbacks, it not only stunned the power establishment in Albany, it also changed the political calculus for the state’s ambitious governor, Democrat Andrew Cuomo.
In New York politics, the governor and the Assembly speaker, along with the leader of the state Senate, often have been called “three men in a room,” the ultimate arbiters of all legislation as well as the crucial annual budget bill.
“And nothing, nothing passes the state legislature without Silver’s approval,” says Ken Sherrill, professor emeritus of political science at Hunter College in Manhattan.
So on the one hand, Speaker Silver’s arrest leaves an enormous power vacuum in Albany’s legislative halls.
“Assuming he does not continue as speaker, Silver will be replaced by somebody who is close to the governor,” Professor Sherrill says. “Unless the governor is implicated with what Silver’s charged with – and I suspect he won't be – I think it will only enhance the governor’s power.”
As he begins his second term at the helm of one of the nation’s most influential states, Governor Cuomo has carefully, perhaps even masterfully, cultivated a record as a fiscally conservative blue-state Democrat, resisting tax increases and holding down pressures to spend more, especially from downstate progressives in New York City.
Yet Cuomo has also been enormously successful at passing legislation tied to liberal social causes. He pushed forward a tough gun-control bill after the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012, and surprised many New Yorkers with his behind-the-scenes effort to pass a gay marriage law in New York – an unexpected effort that is credited with helping open the floodgates as other states soon followed. Were it not for the dominating national presence of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, another moderate Democrat, many believe Cuomo would be actively planning a 2016 run.
But Silver’s arrest also could come with great peril for Cuomo, highlighting one of the most embarrassing episodes of his tenure.
In 2013, Cuomo, with much fanfare, formed the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption, channeling his inner Teddy Roosevelt, who made his political name battling New York’s famous political machines and rampant corruption.
“The politicians in Albany won’t like it, but I work for the people, and I won’t stop fighting until we all have a government that we can trust,” he proclaimed during the 2012 campaign.
The Moreland Commission, he later promised, would be the most far-reaching and aggressive investigation in state history, probing Albany’s well-known “cesspool,” observers say, of free-flowing cash and political corruption. Since 2000, at least 30 New York politicians have faced legal or ethics charges, according to Reuters. One assemblyman wore a wire for three years, recording his colleagues, after he was secretly indicted on corruption charges.
But then, without warning, Cuomo shut the commission down last March. At the time, he said that since the state had just passed new ethics laws, the corruption panel’s investigations were no longer needed.
“[Silver’s arrest] is all that much more stunning given the events that have precipitated the arrest,” says Jeanne Zaino, professor of political science at Iona College in New Rochelle, N.Y. “Just yesterday Silver attended the state of the state address and was sitting close to the governor – and of course, by all accounts, the charges stemmed from the governor’s abrupt and widely criticized shutdown of the Moreland Commission last spring, which many have speculated was done in collusion with the speaker.”
After Cuomo shut down the commission, US Attorney Preet Bharara demanded the panel’s files and then continued many of the investigations it had started. Mr. Bharara also sent Cuomo a sharply worded letter, threatening to investigate the governor for possible obstruction of justice or witness tampering, after several members of the commission issued public statements defending the governor’s decision to disband the panel, following a public uproar.
Following up on many of the panel’s findings, the US attorneys continued their corruption probes.
On Thursday, Bharara charged Silver with five counts of mail fraud, wire fraud, and extortion, accusing the powerful Assembly speaker with “using the power and influence of his official position to obtain for himself millions of dollars of bribes and kickbacks masked as legitimate income.”
Prosecutors say Silver received millions of dollars in income from two law firms through “the corrupt use of his official position.” Authorities seized $3.8 million from his accounts on Thursday.
“Everybody thinks the commission was shut down because it went somewhere or found something that was too hot to handle,” says Sherrill. “At the time, most people conjectured that the problem was that it had found stuff on people close to the governor. It’s now quite possible that the stuff too hot to handle was on Sheldon Silver.”