Federal agents arrested long-time State Assembly speaker Sheldon Silver, the second most-powerful politician in New York State, Thursday morning and charged him with using his office to unlawfully enrich himself.
One of Albany’s “three men in a room,” who once held near-absolute power over law making and spending in the state, Silver, a Democrat from lower Manhattan, spoke quietly from a Manhattan courthouse on Thursday afternoon as reporters swarmed him.
“I am confident that when all the issues are aired, I will be vindicated,” said Silver, is charged with five counts of corruption.
Minutes earlier, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara blasted Silver and charged the longtime lawmaker had abused his political power for personal gain.
“The show-me-the-money culture of Albany has been perpetuated and promoted at the very top of the political food chain,” Bharara told reporters. “The greedy art of secret self-reward was practiced with particular cleverness and cynicism by the speaker himself.”
Silver, 70, was released on $200,000 bail and surrendered his passport. The pretrial hearing for Silver, who was first elected to office in 1976 and elected speaker in 1994, is scheduled for Feb. 23.
Each charge against Silver can carry up to 20 years of prison.
Just a day earlier, Silver beside Gov. Andrew Cuomo while the governor delivered his annual State of the State address.
On Thursday, Cuomo called the charges “a bad reflection on government” that will add to public cynicism about New York’s notoriously corrupt state government, but he refrained from saying whether he thought Silver should step down, the Daily News reported.
Speaking after a 90-minute, closed-door meeting, Assembly Majority Leader Joseph Morelle told reporters his members “have every confidence that the speaker is going to continue to fulfill his role with distinction.”
Bharara called Silver’s arrest “especially dispiriting” given his political influence and leadership. Good government groups echoed the sentiment.
“It’s a damning indictment of our system of government,” Dick Dadey of Citizens Union told Metro, “where one person can hold so much power and profit personally.”
The investigation into the origins of the estimated $3.8 million in outside income that Silver earned since 2002 began two years ago, said Bharara. The complaint against Silver alleged that the Speaker disguised bribes and kickbacks as referral fees. Feds froze eight accounts belonging to Silver in six different banks.
Bharara declined to say how much of the investigation was based on work provided to his office by the now defunct Moreland Commission, an anti-corruption panel Cuomo created in 2013 and then disbanded in March of this year.
The complaint explained how Silver used his office to win large fees for his law firm. In one scheme, he allocated $500,000 in state money to a doctor who would then refer patients to a law firm specializing in asbestos-related diseases. Silver took $3 million in referral fees, the complaint alleged.
In the second scheme, Silver allegedly used his sway over real estate laws to convince developers to hire a law firm, reportedly run by former Silver counsel Jay Arthur Goldberg, that earned Silver $700,000 in fees.
The case against Silver drew comparisons the to the 2009 arrest of former state Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno over $360,000 that federal prosecutors argued were kickbacks for political favors.
Bruno, a Republican, was acquitted by an upstate jury in May 2014 after his original bribery conviction was overturned.
“Politicians are supposed to be on the people’s payroll, not on secret retainer to wealthy special interests they do favors for,” Bharara said Thursday.
“As our unfinished fight against public corruption continues, you should stay tuned,” said Bharara