Silver, Cuomo, Skelos (photo: the governor's office on flickr)
The trial of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has begun in New York City with a federal prosecutor alleging he made $5 million through kickbacks from developers seeking legislative favors and other schemes. "Year after year, Sheldon Silver was on the take," said U.S. Attorney Carrie Cohen, alleging a pattern of "power, greed and corruption." Silver's counsel countered that the former Assembly leader's conduct was "legal and normal." The trial is expected to last six weeks.
Before it is over, former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos will go to trial on charges of extortion and soliciting bribes.
The charges facing both men are substantive and serious. Silver's charges carry a potential penalty of 130 years in prison.
Will Silver and Skelos be convicted? If they are, will they be sent to prison? The historical record may give both men cause for hope.
Former Senate Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno was indicted by federal authorities for wire and mail fraud and other corrupt actions in 2009. Five years of trials, convictions, appeals, and challenges to the constitutionality of the laws that were the basis of prosecution resulted in acquittal. Bruno held a press conference to declare he had been completely exonerated and that the whole thing had been "persecution, not prosecution." New York taxpayers wound up footing most of Bruno's legal bills because state law allows officials to be reimbursed for "reasonable" legal fees if they are acquitted of crimes pertaining to their official duties.
One-time Assembly Speaker Melvin Miller and his law partner were convicted in 1991 of federal charges of cheating legal clients out of some of the profits from investments in cooperative apartments in New York City. The charges were unrelated to Miller's legislative work but the conviction meant automatic expulsion from the legislature. Miller was sentenced to community service which he performed at the Henry Street and University Settlements in New York City, working on mental health and other problems. Two years later, the conviction was overturned on appeal. Miller's actions "may not have been a model of candor and disclosure," the court said, but they did not constitute crimes. Miller decided not to run for office again but continued his legal practice and also worked as a lobbyist.
In 1975, Assembly Speaker Stanley Steingut and his son were indicted on charges that they had promised to assist a donor to the younger Stenigut's campaign for City Council to obtain an unsalaried city job in return for a $2,500 contribution. The exact nature of the position was never clear; press speculation was that it was an honorary deputy police commissioner or unsalaried adviser to the Civilian Complaint Review Board. The Steinguts apparently did not deliver the promised position and the aggrieved donor -- or someone else, it was never entirely clear -- complained to the district attorney. He brought charges under a seldom invoked statue that said an office holder could be charged with "corruptly using" his position in exchange for a benefit, usually cash. It was a shaky case at best.
Steingut denied the accusation and refused to resign as Speaker. Two years later, the Count of Appeals dismissed the indictment on the grounds that there was no evidence of "a materially harmful impact upon governmental processes." Steingut was elated but his vindication led to overconfidence and neglect of politics in his home district. In 1978, he lost his Assembly seat in a primary election.
Then-Assembly Speaker Perry B. Duryea and several others were indicted in 1973 for "vote siphoning." Prosecutors asserted that they set up a phony Liberal Party committee to print and distribute literature for Liberal candidates in marginal legislative districts in order to draw votes away from Democratic candidates, thereby aiding Republicans.
Duryea proclaimed his innocence and refused to step down as Speaker. The next year the charges were dismissed when the section of the election law requiring sponsors of political literature to identify themselves was ruled unconstitutional. Duryea believed the whole thing was a scheme by political opponents to derail his pursuit of the Republican gubernatorial nomination in 1974. Four years later, out from under the cloud of the voting scandal, he secured the nomination but lost the election to Governor Hugh Carey.
Senator Arthur Wicks of Kingston became majority leader in 1949 and, in 1953, also began serving as acting Lieutenant Governor after the incumbent resigned. Press investigative reports that fall disclosed that he had made several visits to Joseph Fay, a labor union leader imprisoned in Sing Sing prison for extortion. Wicks made a paid TV broadcast on Oct. 18, 1953, saying that he had once asked Fay's help "to see that [a union] jurisdictional fight terminated" and other times had asked him "to keep labor peace in my district."
Wicks compared the visits to Fay to the President negotiating with Communist leader Joseph Stalin -- unpleasant but necessary. That analogy didn't wash with Governor Thomas Dewey or most state senators. Wicks was never formally charged with wrongdoing but consulting with a felon at Sing Sing hardly seemed appropriate for one of the state's top officials. Dewey convinced him to resign as majority leader and acting Lieutenant Governor. But he held on to his Senate seat, and was re-elected in 1954.
In 1910, Senator Benn Conger accused Majority Leader Jotham P. Allds of having taken a bribe to kill a piece of legislation back in 1901, when both were serving in the Assembly. Allds proclaimed his innocence, the Senate investigated, and an eyewitness testified that he had seen Allds take a $1,000 bribe in Conger's presence. "I guess it's all right, Conger, it feels good!" Allds had said as he put the envelope with the bribe into his suit pocket. Allds resigned from the Senate just before a vote that had been scheduled to expel him. But he was never prosecuted.
The Senate investigation that unseated Allds also revealed that S. Frederick Nixon, Assembly Speaker from 1899 to 1905 had often taken bribes to advance or kill legislation. He was at the head of a corrupt system of "bill-killing and law-getting," in the words of a contemporary journal article. By 1910, though, Nixon was dead, so only his reputation was tarnished.
History suggests that neither party is more inclined to corruption than the other. Silver, Miller, and Steingut are Democrats; Skelos, Bruno, Duryea, Wicks and Allds, Republicans.
Silver has been speaker since 1994, the second longest tenured speaker in history, and some people have suggested that is too long, leading to arrogance and a sense of entitlement.
The longest tenured Speaker, Oswald D. Heck, a Republican from Schenectady, served from 1937 to 1959, beating Silver by a year. His longevity did not lead to ethics violations or corruption. In fact, he was one of the most effective and upright speakers in state history.
Heck described his political philosophy as "a hard and conservative attitude in economics and a gentle, understanding attitude in human relations." He pressured governors to hold the line on spending but he backed progressive labor and social reforms, including the first state civil rights law in the nation in 1945. The principles he espoused -- cost efficient but responsive government, bi-partisan approaches, and alignment of politics behind the public good -- are still good models. This suggests that longevity in a legislative leadership position does not necessarily result in lapsing into political corruption.
The case against Silver will turn on whether prosecutors can produce and explain evidence that the ex-speaker's maneuverings and deals rose to the level of criminal activities rather than an extreme form of routine Albany deal-making politics. "There are two sides to every story, and we haven't heard [Silver's] side" yet, wrote Mel Miller in a Wall Street Journal op-ed column earlier this year. That story is about to pour out.
Whatever the verdict, history will be made.
Dr. Bruce W. Dearstyne is the author of the book The Spirit of New York: Defining Events in the Empire State's History, published in 2015 by SUNY Press.