By Arthur Z. Schwartz
I held off on writing about the Sheldon Silver trial hoping to have a verdict to discuss. But the jury is clearly going to deliberate at least till our publication date, and perhaps longer. I realized however, that that verdict is just a technical end to a sordid tale. The verdict will decide whether Sheldon Silver goes to jail and has to forfeit the $4 million plus that he gained from the two schemes under scrutiny, or gets to carry on with his life. But even if he is acquitted, on the highly technical grounds that the financial gain he realized as a result of his political position was never spelled out with a stated quid pro quo agreement, there is no question that he is through as an elected official, and will go down in the halls of legislator infamy. And if he is acquitted he will be the singularly most financially successful abuser of a legislative position in the history of the United States: $4 million that we know of, and there could have been more.
Silver, of course, stands as one of a dozen or more state legislators convicted of crimes of greed over the last 5 years, and his greed is reflected in a second trial, just down the hall, of former Republican Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos. Why does it keep going on, and on, and on? What about government makes the most vile, base, greedy side come out in people who probably started out with a genuine desire to serve their communities?
Politics is about power. Legitimate exercise of power. Power that includes the ability to spend or direct the expenditure of extraordinary amounts of money. And, added to that, are “campaign contributions,” which, when they come from people who want to receive the benefit of that money, or of your power, are legal bribes. Bribes, plain and simple. The money from contributors goes to a “campaign committee” (i.e., Friends of Deborah Glick) but the reality is that that under the State Election Law, that money belongs to the legislator, to be spent any way the legislator wishes. Sheldon Silver’s legal bills are not being paid out of the millions he stashed away, they are being paid from his campaign fund. One can look at the NY State Board of Elections web site and search for “Friends of Silver.” Look at the July Periodic Report. The numbers are amazing. As of January 16, 2015, Silver had $3.2 million in his campaign account. He transferred out $1.5 million to two law firms. He still had $300,000 in funds coming in from returns on investments. But his entire trial will be paid for by contributors. He still had $1.7 million on July 15. He could be convicted, or acquitted and step down, and walk away with over $1 million in campaign contributions. Why giving money to a candidate who addresses your business isn’t a bribe is beyond my feeble legal mind.
The trial shows that Sheldon Silver wielded enormous power. He said “spend $500,000 here” and it was spent. No RFP, no forms, no reports, no follow-ups. If he wanted a bill passed, it passed (of course then he had to make a deal with Skelos to get it passed in the Senate.) No one challenged Sheldon Silver for the last 20 years. The last Assembly Member who tried was assigned to a committee which investigated the smell of cow manure (that is a joke, but close to the truth.)
But just think about what would have happened if some “progressive” had taken on Silver. Called him out. Looked at his expenditures, demanded answers and explanations. How about if someone made a fuss about his campaign contributions and who he took money from? Or demanded, on the floor, that Silver explain his huge income from Weitz and Luxemburg? And what better neighborhood would a rabble-rouser come from than the Village? Why not from our “dynamic” Assembly Member who led marches challenging NYU? But no, she was an enabler. Perhaps Shelly’s biggest fan. The last one to stop saying that Silver should stay on as Speaker until AFTER his trial ended. She was primed to take over his mantle; rumors had her as the leading candidate to succeed him. And she was practicing, taking tens of thousands from Societies of medical professionals, even though her committee was in charge of regulating the professionals in New York, building her account up past $100,000.
Deborah Glick apparently likes to Tweet about football games, giving play by play commentary. If she cared about changing things she would be Tweeting about the Silver trial, giving all of us valuable commentary, putting out a call for a strict ethics bill, far more detailed reporting from legislators about their finances, and a publicly financed election system, like we have in NYC, where corporate contributions are barred, and the money in a campaign account can only be spent on campaign expenditures. And she would express outrage, or a sense of betrayal, about the greed of Silver, her mentor. But, alas, our Assembly District has no such voice.
Arthur Z. Schwartz is the Male Democratic District Leader for Greenwich Village