According to an old cliche, laws are like sausages: It’s better not to see them made.
And on Thursday, after federal prosecutors said New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver used his office to enrich himself through a runaround scheme of bribes and kickbacks, many of the nitty gritties of back room politics were laid bare.
Mr. Silver, a Democrat, was weaned in the political clubs of Manhattan’s Lower East Side and was an old-school master of the maze, a mostly shadowy public figure sometimes called “the Sphinx” who knew how to wield and maintain power – all while taking in millions of dollars.
The case against Silver, one of the most potent power brokers in New York over the past 20 years, points up the difficulties in reforming the nation’s labyrinthine political processes where, through legislation and appropriation, billions of dollars are often at stake.
While other states have attempted to address the selling of political power by establishing ethics commissions and implementing term limits, corruption has proved particularly entrenched in New York. At least 30 state politicians have faced legal or ethical charges since 2000.
For years, politicians have talked about bolstering New York’s opaque disclosure laws and filling the holes in its porous ethics requirements. Despite annual rhetoric from state lawmakers, state law still allows corporations to funnel huge donations to politicians through small gifts that can easily be disguised.
Lawmakers are permitted to earn outside income. But financial disclosure laws remain lax in the state, allowing legislators and others to mask political shenanigans in quid pro quo “work” that is essentially pay for influence.
“Concern about and focus on these types of issues – unlike, say, the economy or education, for instance – tends to go in waves,” says Jeanne Zaino, professor of political science at Iona College in New Rochelle, N.Y. “A scandal or arrest will prompt concern, but beyond the advocates, it is often short-lived.”
“Since politicians know all these things, they know the reality is that they are unlikely to pay much of a price for not acting,” Professor Zaino continues. “And at the same time, they are unlikely to benefit a tremendous amount by focusing all their energy on this issue.”
And according to prosecutors, Silver directed $500,000 of these member item discretionary funds he controls to fund a New York City doctor’s research center on lung disease. The assembly speaker said the grant money would support research for those affected by 9/11 illnesses – still a hot political issue for many powerful New York constituencies.
The doctor, in turn, sent lung patients exposed to asbestos to Weitz & Luxenberg, a personal injury law firm that paid Silver a yearly salary of nearly $120,000, and a total of $1.4 million over the past few years, even though he has not done any documented legal work for the firm, according to the criminal complaint. But Silver also got nearly $4 million in referral fees for each asbestos case the firm brought in, federal investigators say.
In another scheme, Silver used his influence to convince real estate developers to employ the law firm Goldberg & Iryami, who then paid the assembly speaker $700,000 in referral fees.
“This is really just old fashioned local politics,” says Ken Sherrill, professor emeritus of political science at Hunter College in Manhattan.
In 2013, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) set up the Moreland Commission, empowering it with subpoena power, and charged it investigate the kinds of corruption Silver is now charged with.
The commission, too, asked Silver about his work with attorneys at Weitz & Luxenberg, which he had disclosed as the law required, requesting “a description of the services you provide or have provided in exchange for compensation.”
Silver angrily denounced the subpoena, and had the Assembly hire a law firm to fight what he called a fishing expedition. Then, abruptly and without warning, Governor Cuomo disbanded the commission in 2014 – and endured withering criticism by reform advocates, who criticize Albany for breeding political corruption.
“Members of the legislature feared crossing Silver, feared his retaliation. Machiavelli is right: It’s better to be feared than loved,” Professor Sherrill says.
Most state legislatures, as well as the federal government, set up in-house ethics commissions to investigate their fellow colleagues.
In New York, a Joint Commission on Public Ethics, which was created in 2011 with the passage of the Public Integrity Reform Act, which was signed by Cuomo, oversees both the executive and legislative branches.
While ethics commissions can provide additional checks on those in power, they are not necessarily an end-all solution to the problem. Politicians may be reluctant to become a legislative body’s hall monitor, and those investigated sometimes wield the kind of backroom power that can derail careers behind the scenes, political experts say.
Fifteen states, including California, Florida, and Arizona, have instituted term limits to head off the kind of entrenched power Silver was able to wield.