New York – There was no star witness, no damning testimony, no briefcase stuffed with cash that sealed the fate of former New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who for 20 years was one of the state’s most powerful politicians.
Instead, legal experts say, a jury convicted the Manhattan Democrat of corruption Monday based a slow drip of circumstantial evidence that painted the Manhattan Democrat as a political insider who profited from his public service.
Silver’s appeal is likely to focus on the lack of a smoking gun. The jury’s decision to convict comes as poll after poll show the public has a low opinion of its representatives in Albany.
“I still don’t think the government proved he was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt,” said Albany Law School Professor Vincent Bonventre said. “I do think what they proved was what he did was unseemly and sleazy. And the defense, by saying ‘this is just Albany politics,’ I think that just further enraged the jury.”
The jury convicted Silver on charges that he traded favors for $4 million in kickbacks from a cancer researcher and real estate developers. His defense argued the payments were for legitimate legal referrals.
Silver plans an appeal that likely will focus on whether prosecutors showed a direct connection between Silver’s actions as a lawmaker and his income. In many similar cases, prosecutors have a witness or a document explicitly describing what a defendant would do in exchange for an inducement, according to Albany defense attorney E. Stewart Jones, who successfully defended ex-Senate Leader Joe Bruno when the GOP lawmaker was acquitted of corruption charges last year.
“That’s the central issue, whether they proved a quid pro quo,” said Jones, using the Latin term used to describe illegal ‘this-for-that’ schemes. “When you get right down to it, it was a purely circumstantial case.”
Serving in the Legislature is considered a part-time job, leaving lawmakers free to pursue outside employment. That can cause problems when, as in Silver’s case, they accept payments from companies or individuals with business before the state.
“This where it gets gray very quickly,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Tuesday. “You’re a lawyer in private practice and someone is trying to get a bill passed in Albany. They happen to retain you as their lawyer. Now maybe they retained you as their lawyer because you’re very good … or maybe they engaged you because you’re a legislator and they really want you to help pass their legislation. That’s the gray that’s always existed.”
Lawmakers have so far resisted calls to restrict their outside income, but it’s likely to be one of several proposals up for consideration when they reconvene next month.
Silver won’t be among them. He lost his seat automatically when he was convicted and now faces decades in prison. But longtime observers and critics of the Legislature’s failure to address corruption say the lesson of his conviction must be remembered come January.
Polls show voters are increasingly dissatisfied with the response to a wave of corruption that has seen 30 legislators leave office because of criminal or ethical allegations since 2000. A Quinnipiac Poll from September found that only about a quarter of voters believe current lawmakers are capable of ending corruption, and about half say all current office holders should be voted out of office.
“When the leader of a ‘respected body’ is convicted on seven felony counts of corruption and fraud, it is time for the people to question the premise that it is a ‘respected body,'” said Assemblyman Michael Kearns, D-Buffalo. “The New York state Assembly is sick and in need of healing.”