An old miner’s axiom which I just made up posits that where there’s Silver there’s gold. What happens now after Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has been charged by federal authorities with bribery and mail fraud in connection with his official duties?
Silver, shortly after beginning his 21st year as Assembly leader, was accused last week by the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara, of pocketing some $6 million from illegal activities, dating to about 2000. Released on $200,000 bond, Silver has pleaded not guilty, and says he will be vindicated.
The fact that almost every member of the 106-member Assembly Democratic majority either rallied to their leader’s cause or remained silent speaks to the respect, affection and perhaps fear in which the Lower East Side of Manhattan leader is held.
For the record, long-time Silver ally Kevin Cahill says he will say little because as a member of the Assembly Ethics Committee (and its former chairman) he might have to sit in judgment of Silver. About all he will say on the record is that the charges are just that: Federal indictments are expected shortly, and under our system a person is considered innocent until proven guilty. Cahill sent out a statement on Monday noting the body will “continue to work on a plan to assure an on-time budget and a progressive agenda. Our decision about leadership going forward will be to advance those goals.” On Tuesday, he sent out another, supporting Silver’s decision to step down from the speakership. “This has been a complicated process emanating from an unfortunate circumstance,” the statement read. “Personal relationships and political alliances should take a back seat going forward as my colleagues and I select the leader who will assure that our priorities become the driving force in our upcoming budget and the remainder of the session.”
In an attempt to put this sordid situation in context, Cahill also noted that former speaker Mel Miller and former Senate majority leader Joe Bruno had federal convictions overturned by appeals courts.
Following the institutional line, State Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, who might be hearing federal footsteps around his chamber, told reporters it’s up to the Assembly to discipline its members. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has taken much the same position, even as insiders worry about other Department of Justice-style shoes being dropped.
But let us return to the subjects of respect, affection and fear.
Silver, who was re-elected speaker by his conference even with rumors of a federal investigation in the air, is respected by Assembly Democrats for an ability to balance sometimes-extreme elements in a diverse body. An assemblyman since 1976, the 70-year-old leader is held in affection by most older members. More the carrot than the stick, Silver rewards loyalty with largesse, be it some form of member items, committee assignments or campaign cash. It literally pays to stay on his good side. Conversely, as former Assembly majority leader Michael Bragman discovered in 2000 when his coup attempt disintegrated, to challenge Silver is to invite career disaster.
Should Silver plead guilty to a felony, he will be immediately removed from office.
Room at the top
Assembly Democrats met Monday night and voted to ask Silver to step aside as speaker pending the outcome of his legal issues. Silver, who briefly addressed the caucus prior to its five-hour discussion, agreed with the decision.
This was a remarkable turnaround from the stand-by-our-man stance taken by the caucus shortly after the federal charges were announced against Silver. It is no doubt the result of public opinion and the perception that Silver cannot address his legal defense and carry out his leadership duties.
With Silver considered toast, one way or the other, lines of succession will form in New York City. Upstate’s bone, as usual, will be majority leader. Cahill has been mentioned for that position before, but has said he wasn’t interested.
What will get Cahill’s continuing attention is forming or re-establishing the kinds of alliances that produced all that gelt from Silver’s mine. For reference, consider the $47 million for the Kingston-Benedictine buyout, millions for Dietz Stadium renovations, quarter-million-dollar checks for Woodstock’s Community Center and for the Phoenicia Library reconstruction. Cahill needs to assure the flow continues.
U.S. Rep. Chris Gibson, apparently waiting or the wind to shift, belatedly called for the “firing” of Silver on Tuesday, almost a week after Silver was charged. Rarely one to dabble in state politics, Gibson in a strongly worded post on his Facebook page on Wednesday, also dropped a proximity fuse on Gov. Andrew Cuomo for failing to deal with systemic corruption in Albany.
Recall that in his surprise announcement the first week of this month that he would retire after this term, Gibson signaled a possible future in state Republican politics. We heard the first salvo this week. Look for Gibson, as he serves out his last term in congress, to take similar leadership positions on state issues.
Here and there
This too shall pass, but New Paltz Town Supervisor Susan Zimet’s comparing social media criticism of the town board to a racially motivated lynching of an innocent African-American man was even by Zimet’s hyperbolic standards way, way over the top. Zimet, who plays the victim well, made the ill-advised comment at a town board meeting, which, recorded, went viral. That the town board has been vilified beyond even impolite discourse remains a subject for legitimate discussion, bombast notwithstanding.
Former Saugerties county legislator Bob Aiello is making noise like a man on the comeback trail, but will have to get past newcomer Chris Allen, who beat him by about 300 votes in 2013. Aiello, a nine-term Republican, claims he was sold out by his own party. There’s every indication he took for granted the challenge of the energetic and at times quirky Allen. For his part, Allen says, “I’ll beat him by 600 next time,” should Aiello attempt a return from forced retirement.
Speaking of retirement, former county undersheriff Frank Faluotico made it official a few weeks ago, ending a 28-year career in local law enforcement. Or did he? It’s hard to believe that at 50, a gamer like Faluotico will remain on the sidelines for long. A real showman, “the under” (as the department’s second in command is referred to) once staged a drug raid (via the URGENT task force which he led) on a building across Main Street in Kingston from the County Office Building while the legislature was in session debating an issue involving the sheriff’s department.
Despite some grousing about bidding procedures, the county executive’s request for $126,000 to fund a veterans’ memorial in front of the county office building sailed through the legislature with nary a nay in special session last week. County Attorney Bea Havranek was on hand to assure legislators that despite a fast-track bidding process the county was acting within the law.
The schedule was ordained by County Executive Mike Hein, who wants the monument in place for a Memorial Day dedication on the front lawn of the county office building. The monument will contain the names of some 1,300 Ulster County veterans killed in wars dating from the Spanish-American. With time ticking on the executive deadline, few legislators, even after being called into special session, were prepared to protest against this patriotic endeavor.