The felony convictions of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, now suddenly former assemblyman, had to send cold chills through the Dean Skelos camp, where the former majority leader of the state Senate was, along with his son, on trial across Foley Square in Manhattan federal court on similar bribery and influence-peddling charges.
To the pundits and talking heads, of which I am now a senior member, the Skelos case was much simpler than Silver’s. Unlike with Skelos, it did not appear that Silver muscled anybody for the millions he pocketed. It was just business as usual in the ethically challenged Assembly. Skelos and son Adam are standing accused of outright extortion. The wonder for me is that a reluctant contributor didn’t wake up to find a horse’s head in his bed.
To ordinary people, and that’s what juries are, the Skelos case was by comparison drawn in shades of black and white, Silver’s in gray nuances and mind-numbing legalese. If either was going down, the bets were on Skelos. And now he stands alone. I’m guessing somebody on the Skelos team should be looking for a deal.
Assemblyman Kevin Cahill, whose career was made by Silver — as were those of numerous other loyalists — said he was “saddened” by the verdict. Like the defendant, he remains convinced — though perhaps not as convinced as before — that an appeals court will overturn the jury’s decisions.
Here, Cahill was harkening to the general and the specific, which is to say former Senate majority leader Joe Bruno’s conviction in federal court being overturned on technicalities. As is the way in the legal profession, trial courts determine fact, appeals courts the law.
Did Silver get justice, Cahill was asked?
“No,” he replied. “The jury made a decision based on an unclear reading of the law. There was no quid pro quo proven. I still believe legal elements of the crime were not presented.”
Which is to conclude that Cahill, had he been on the Silver jury (which would have been impossible on several levels), the former speaker would have walked.
The house Silver controlled for some 20 years made its judgment when they forced the speaker to step down in January after he was formally charged by federal officials. Under the state constitution, a convicted legislator is removed from office immediately. Membership in this legislative hall of shame since 2000 stands at 33, roughly 15 percent of both houses.
While loyal to Silver, Cahill speaks to ironies and paradoxes surrounding the leader who at one point was the most powerful of the three men in the Albany room. “The irony of Sheldon Silver is that he was a brilliant lawyer who could have easily made many more millions, but chose to enter the Assembly [in 1972] at $38,000 a year,” Cahill said. He didn’t speak to the illegal $4 million Silver was convicted of taking.
The paradox is that Silver, the quintessential man of the house, “imbued in all of us that the institution is bigger than any individual member. It’s the institution that counts,” Cahill said. He did not disagree that Silver had diminished that institution by his actions.
Going forward, few see much chance for fundamental change in an institution that makes its own rules and whose members are returned to office at rates exceeding 97 percent. If it’s not broke for them, goes the apparent logic, why change anything?
Sending new members to Albany doesn’t seem to change things. “The ratio of new people [a 40 percent turnover in the Assembly in the last decade] getting jammed up is about the same as veteran members,” Cahill observed “We’re not attracting the best and the brightest across the state and we need to.”
The state Board of Elections reported last week that just under 29 percent of eligible voters cast votes in the 2014 gubernatorial election, putting New York in 49th position among the states, just ahead of Illinois. Collective turnout for the state legislature, where only a handful of seats were competitive, was lower. And they call this representative government?
The official word on Silver’s fate from Speaker Carl Heastie is “sad,” a sentiment echoed by Cahill. Pete Lopez, Republican assemblyman representing Saugerties, expressed “sorrow” for the Assembly and wondered “how many more will be added to the list.”
I find sadness misplaced, even offensive. Sad is when officials with long records of public and community service die, as former alderman Bill Paulus of Kingston and former Dutchess sheriff Fred Scoralick very recently did. Words I’d use to describe my feelings about Silver fall somewhere among “angry,” “betrayed,” “outrageous” and, for many, “jubilation.”
Not to get ahead of ourselves here, but what happens if County Executive Mike Hein gets elected to Congress next year? He’d have to vacate his office, effective Jan. 1, 2017. But after that, what?
Actually, it looks like the groundwork has already been laid. Smart people doped it out three years ago in a charter amendment that redefined executive succession. Even for the casual observer, it makes for interesting reading.
For one thing, the executive in this so-called “executive era of county government,” appoints his or her own successor in the event of a vacancy, subject to special election. And whom might that fortuitous person be?