Some Notes on the Sheldon Silver Case
U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara issued a complaint against New York Assembly leader Sheldon Silver this week. The account alleges among other things that Sheldon Silver used his office for private gain by steering clients to law firms that employed Mr. Silver to be “of counsel.” New York State Legislatures are Part-Time positions and elected members are allowed to have outside employment including outside employment that may constitute a conflict of interest*. This article from 2013 says that New York State legislature members receive just under 80,000 dollars per a year in salary.
New York has a long and colorful history of less than than squeaky clean politics. Zephyr Teachout’s (I still can’t believe this is her real name) surprising showing against Andrew Cuomo in the New York Democratic Primary last spring was primarily because many liberals in New York state consider Cuomo to be corrupt beyond repair.
This still raises the question about whether Sheldon Silver did anything illegal with his office. The complaint is still a big deal. Sheldon Silver was elected to the New York State Assembly in 1977 and he became the speaker of the assembly in 1994. Sam Rayburn only served as Speaker of the House of Representatives for 17 years. Mike Mansfield only served as the Senate Majority Leader for 16 years. This made Sheldon Silver one of the most powerful people in the most powerful and wealthiest States in the United States. For most of my life, New York had a divided legislature with the Democratic Party controlling the Assembly, the Republican Party controlling the State Senate, and the Governorship going back and forth between each party pretty evenly. There is a true-enough ism that legislation in New York is really decided between the Governor, the Speaker of the Assembly, and the State Senate leader because of this almost perpetual divide.
Silver was “of counsel” for a New York personal injury firm called Weitz & Luxemberg and would allegedly use his position in the Assembly to get clients for the firm. “Of Counsel” is a valid position that is very hard to define and the definition seems to change depending on the firm. Sometimes “of counsel” means a largely retired partner who is still kept on hand because of their large amount of knowledge and skills but only works on special or really difficult cases. Other times it means someone with a semi-independent relationship to the firm who is well-above being an associate but is not considered a partner. Being a “rainmaker” and getting cases for a firm is a perfectly valid thing for an Of Counsel lawyer to do. Sheldon Silver was paid a large amount of money by the firm, potentially millions of dollars but if he earned them tens of millions of dollars or more in cases than his salary is justified. The quid pro quo arrangement that Bharara is alleging seems rather complicated. Allegedly Silver got a doctor a state grant for 500,000 dollars and the doctor directed patients with injuries to Weitz & Luxemberg. It seems highly plausible that the grant could have been for legitimate medical research or that the doctor subconsciously directed patients to Luxemberg because of the grant but you would need a pretty big smoking gun to say that the doctor only got the grant because he directed patients to Weitz & Luxemberg.
Preet Bharara is very smart and like all U.S. Attorneys, especially ones in important federal districts, is trying to make a name for himself. His attempts to go after Wall Street after the financial crisis were largely mixed to unsuccessful and this made many Democratic voters disappointed. Perhaps he thinks he can improve his reforming and good government credentials by taking down Silver and come back into Progressive good graces. Silver is a largely a reliable Democratic voter but like many Democratic politicians, he has a way of annoying the upper-middle class and more liberal part of the Democratic base. The most interesting thing to me about Teachout’s primary results is that she cleaned the floor with Cuomo in the wealthy Northern suburbs of NYC but couldn’t hold a candle to Cuomo when it came to getting votes in New York City itself. Teachout’s campaign seemed most popular among college-educated (and largely white) upper-middle class progressives. At least based on her coverage and my friends from New York.
Republican State Senate Leader Joe Bruno was arrested on corruption charges a few years ago and now the state owes him 2.4 million dollars in legal fees. New York State might find itself owning Sheldon Silver millions in legal fees unless Preet Bharara has a lot of good evidence that he is keeping close to his chest.
What is the solution to avoiding this kind of corruption? Potentially turning the state legislature into a full-time position with a low-six figure salary. New York is probably one of the sates that is big and complex enough to justify having a full-time legislative body. The idea of a part-time legislature might be appealing from a romantic prospective but it does not seem to have much to do with the workings of a modern government, economy, and state. The idea seems to like a throwback to a less complicated and technologically advanced time. State legislatures probably have more control and influence over their citizens than the Federal Government and this is where real anti-corruption measures should be focused. I imagine it is also where corruption is easier because the expenses of running for a state legislature are lower than Congress or the U.S. Senate.