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Report: Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver to temporarily relinquish power to fight corruption charges

Azi Paybarah
via Flickr

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver is expected to present a plan to Assembly Democrats Monday, in which he would temporarily relinquish his power as Speaker to a small group of Assembly Democrats.  

According to the New York Times, Silver would not resign his post. Instead, he would step back temporarily as Speaker, in order to fight federal corruption charges. Silver was arrested and charged last week with running illegal kickback and bribery schemes that earned him $4 million.

Richard Brodsky is a former Assembly member who had a reputation as a reformer, and is now a senior fellow at the think tank Demos.  He says he’s stunned by the charges.  

“If proven, they are terrible," Brodsky said. “Just terrible.”

But Brodsky says there are practical reasons why it makes sense for Assembly Democrats to stand with Silver, who many in the Capitol call Shelly, for now, even though it may look strange to the public. The state budget is due in two months, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo has proposed a wide range of items that Democrats like and dislike -- including an increase in the minimum wage, which they favor, and an expansion of charter schools,  and tougher teacher evaluations, which they do not. There’s also a budget surplus that will be divvied up in part into key economic development programs.

Brodsky says Democrats are worried that Cuomo and the Republicans who rule the state Senate may try to take advantage of any perceived weakness in the Assembly to get their way on those and many other issues. 

“However artfully or inartfully expressed it was, there’s something going on that matters to the members beyond loyalty to Shelly, and that’s the ability to function in the budget process,” Brodsky said.

He admits though, that “there’s no good way to do this.”

Silver is known as a master negotiator who delivers for his members.

Blair Horner, with the New York Public Interest Research Group, says at the very least, though, the serious charges that the speaker  is facing will be a distraction as the budget talks commence.

“Clearly, to have the U.S. Attorney’s office breathing down the speaker’s neck means he has to pay attention to that legal battle,” said Horner. “It means he cannot devote the same sort of mental energy to keeping his conference together and negotiating with the governor. It’s going to hurt.”

Two decades ago, another Assembly speaker, Mel Miller, was indicted on criminal charges that stemmed from his private legal practice. They had nothing to do with the then speaker’s role as leader of the Assembly.  Miller did not resign form the Assembly until he was convicted. He was later acquitted on appeal, and afterward worked as a lobbyist.

Former Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno endured two lengthy trials brought by federal prosecutors, and was ultimately exonerated. Long time Assemblyman and Ways and Means Chairman Denny Farrell said last week he would keep an open mind.

“There are a whole bunch of guys, you look back in the history, who were indicted, found guilty, and then thrown out of court,” Farrell said.

There are a number of former legislative leaders who did go to prison for corruption, including former Senate Majority Leader Pedro Espada, who is serving a five-year prison term. Former Senate leaders Malcolm Smith and John Sampson face trials this year. Sampson, like Silver, remains  in the legislature.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.