Albany, NY – For years, it was one of Albany’s enduring mysteries: What exactly did New York state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver do for a law firm to earn the millions of dollars in income shown on his financial disclosure forms?
While Silver told reporters he represented injured clients for Weitz & Luxenberg, federal prosecutors painted a different story at his corruption trial.
Silver, they said, did no legal work at all. Instead, he simply passed on the names of asbestos patients from a cancer doctor in exchange for secretly steering taxpayer money Silver controlled to support the doctor’s research, collecting hefty legal referral fees in the process.
Silver’s conviction on Monday for fraud and extortion has brought renewed calls from advocates to re-examine laws they say allow New York state lawmakers to earn outside income despite major conflicts of interest.
“Silver’s conviction could be New York’s Watergate moment, where the public turns against the political status quo and demands change in a way it hasn’t before,” said Dick Dadey, executive director of the New York good government group Citizens Union.
New York state is not alone in permitting lawmakers to earn outside money. In all 50 states, legislators are technically considered part-time and can have other jobs to supplement their income.
But advocates say a combination of other factors – campaign finance laws that allow companies to disguise their contributions, lax financial disclosure requirements and the sheer size of New York’s $142 billion annual budget – make outside income an especially insidious problem in the state.
Some jurisdictions have far more exacting disclosure regulations, such as Alaska and the District of Columbia, which require lawmakers to explain the type of work they performed to earn outside income.
New York Assemblyman Daniel O’Donnell, a Democrat, has sponsored a bill to ban most outside income that has thus far not gained traction in the legislature.
“The ability to earn outside income creates too much potential for impropriety,” he said. “When you are elected to represent the people, that should be your one job.”
Other high-ranking lawmakers, including Democratic Assemblywoman Deborah Glick and Republican Senator John Bonacic, have joined in calling for the elimination of outside salaries.
Governor Andrew Cuomo told reporters he was “intrigued” by the idea but said many people “don’t want full-time legislators and full-time politicians.”
More than 30 legislators have been forced from office for criminal or ethical issues since 2000, according to Citizens Union.
But the conviction of Silver, who spent two decades as one of the state’s most powerful politicians before giving up his speaker’s post when he was charged, may finally spur major reform in a statehouse buffeted by corruption allegations.
Weitz & Luxenberg was unaware of Silver’s kickback scheme, prosecutors said, and has not been accused of wrongdoing.
Silver’s counterpart in the state Senate, former Majority Leader Dean Skelos, is also on trial for corruption in federal court in New York.
Cuomo previously led efforts to strengthen financial disclosure regulations, but critics say the measures did not go far enough.
The Silver conviction is “a tipping point, I believe, and it is qualitatively different,” said Susan Lerner, the executive director of good government group Common Cause in New York.