The ‘Distraction’ Of Silver’s Legal Troubles

From the Morning Memo:

As Speaker Sheldon Silver’s arrest was imminent and the day’s scheduled legislative session in the Assembly in doubt, no elected official wanted to utter the word “chaos” to describe the situation.

But was certainly how the day felt, a surreal moment for the state Assembly, even by the standards set by Albany for weirdness.

Consider that Silver the survivor, Silver the Albany Sphinx, known for being nearly unflappable with his deep, almost inaudible monotone accented with a New York City speak almost no one sounds like anymore had his future in doubt.

Consider that Silver’s arrest comes at a delicate time in Albany, as lawmakers begin to consider a $142 billion budget proposal — introduced only a day earlier — that includes a major package of education reform measures that has to pass by March 31.

If there was ever a year that Assembly Democrats wanted their one-third of the three men in a room strong, it was this budget season.

Albany is a town that thrives on consistency and can quickly spiral downward when any wrenches are thrown into the gears.

And that’s what makes Silver’s career in state politics all the more important.

Silver survived a leadership coup attempt in 2000 by then-Assemblyman Michael Bragman.

Silver has survived members of his staff and those elected to his Democratic conference who were booted from office over sexual harassment and assault allegations.

Silver has survived five governors, a tenure bookended by two guys named Cuomo.

Silver was the rock when a prostitution scandal forced one governor from office and installed a weaker one. As the Senate devolved into the chaos of a bitter leadership fight, Silver’s Assembly chugged along.

Silver was the voice of the left of the three men in a room that featured two Republicans, confounding both of them for being obstinate and helping to enable a series of late budgets.

In short, Sheldon Silver, for better or worse, has been a symbol of Albany and state government for the last generation — a nimble tactician who is more than able to negotiate his members’ concerns behind closed doors.

All that explains, in part, why no Democratic allies of Silver wanted to use the word “chaos” on Thursday.

Instead, Assembly Majority Leader Joe Morelle insisted in a gaggle with reporters and dozens of Democratic conference members that Silver’s arrest on five counts of corruption would not be a “distraction from the work we have to do.”

Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul was similarly emphatic that the budget — which has been passed four times in a row in advance of the March 31 deadline under Gov. Andrew Cuomo — won’t fall by the wayside.

“Certainly, there is a process that is going to work out,” Hochul said yesterday in Glens Falls. “We are still focused on getting an on-time budget, the governor is very proud of working with the legislature for the past four years to accomplish that, that will continue to be our goal, we are going to get it done.”

Democrats also insisted Silver remains an effective negotiator for their cause in the closed-door leaders meetings.

“I never doubt Shelly Silver’s abilities as a poker player,” said Assemblyman Jeff Aubry.

The stakes are high for Assembly Democrats as they enter this round of budget talks with the governor and the Republican-controlled Senate.

Cuomo is seeking major reforms to the state’s education system that include measures opposed by liberals in the Assembly, including a lifting of the charter school cap by 100, an education tax credit and making it harder to get tenure for teachers.

All measures are opposed by the teachers unions and all would be fought over by Silver.

A reporter in yesterday’s gaggle with Assembly Democrats asked a simple, but perhaps the most pertinent question of Thursday: “Who’s in charge?”

The lawmakers paused briefly before seemingly all pointing to themselves.

Silver has always insisted his conference is member driven. His legal troubles may have to put that claim to the test.

Langworthy Says Kearns Should Replace Silver As Speaker

When Assemblyman Mickey Kearns announced he would not caucus with his party until Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver stepped down, few people outside Western New York even noticed.  Thursday following Silver’s arrest on fraud and corruption charges, the South Buffalo Democrat seemed to offer a bit of an ‘I told you so’ to the Assembly Democratic Conference.

“What I’m surprised about is how long he’s lasted. We had proof that there were young girls that were under oppression that were being abused by some of my colleagues and that wasn’t good enough to remove him from office,” Kearns said.

Kearns has been a vocal critic of Silver since the Vito Lopez scandal but only Charles Barron, a freshman Democrat from Brooklyn, joined him in not supporting Silver as Speaker earlier this month.  That’s something a well known WNY Republican leader was quick to point out Thursday night.

“I want to know where our local delegation, you know, Sean Ryan and Robin Schimminger and Crystal Peoples (-Stokes), where they stand on Shelly Silver’s leadership,” said Erie County GOP Chairman Nick Langworthy.

Ryan did release a statement saying he was “disturbed” by the allegations but few Western New York Democrats outside of the Assembly Majority Leader had anything to say.

“Perhaps they should look to Mickey Kearns as the new Speaker of the Assembly. He’s a Democrat. He’s a reformer. He’s somebody that really brings a bipartisan approach to government and he could get things done,” said Langworthy.

This isn’t the first time Langworthy has been supportive of Kearns.  He allowed Kearns to run on the Republican line during his first run for the Assembly in a 2012 special election.

Kearns himself knows it’s unlikely the Democratic Caucus would welcome him back with open arms let alone vote for him as Speaker.  When asked who he’d like to see replace Silver, Kearns was intentionally vague.

“Anyone who’s not under indictment or investigation would be better than Speaker Silver right now,” Kearns added.

Assembly Democrats Back Silver Staying On As Speaker

Assembly Democrats emerged from a 90-minute closed-door meeting on Thursday to announce their overwhelming support for Speaker Sheldon Silver, who faces a five-count federal complaint on fraud and corruption.

“I’m continuing to support the speaker and I would say the members are overwhelmingly from the conversation that we just had are continuing their support,” said Assembly Majority Leader Joe Morelle, who was joined by dozens of Silver’s 106-member Democratic conference in the Assembly.

In a somewhat chaotic and cramped gaggle with reporters, Morelle insisted members in the meeting remain loyal to Silver, who has held the speaker’s gavel since 1994.

“We believe he can continue on as speaker,” Morelle said.

Lawmakers in the Democratic conference, however, did not review the corruption complaint released today by federal prosecutors, Morelle said.

He added there is an “overwhelming belief in the presumption of innocence” among the members of the conference.

Among those standing behind Morelle to show solidarity with Silver and the conference: Assemblyman Bill Scarborough, a Queens Democrat who faces his own corruption charges pertaining to the misuse of per diems.

The news conference underscored the bedrock of support Silver has built up over the last 21 years as the speaker of a fractious body of members with competing political, ethic and geographic concerns.

The Manhattan Democrat was only re-elected to the speaker’s post three weeks ago, with little dissent among members. Two Democrats — Assemblymen Charles Barron and Mickey Kearns — reiterated their calls for Silver to step down today, but neither lawmaker had initially supported him in the first place.

Silver’s arrest landed like a bombshell in Albany on Thursday morning, a day after Gov. Andrew Cuomo released his $142 billion budget proposal and State of the State address.

Morelle said he had spoken to Silver last night about his returning to New York City today, but did not give a reason why. He said he had not spoken to Silver after the indictment was release.

Today’s regularly scheduled session was cancelled, but lawmakers insisted that next week will be a return to normalcy.

Morelle told reporters that members are “concerned for the speaker” and are withholding judgement.

“I do not think it’s a distraction,” Morelle said. “We have 106 members who are prepared to roll up their selves and do the work that they need to do.”

Republicans Pile On Silver (Updated)

As expected, Republicans are – rather gleefully, it must be said – piling on Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver in the wake of his arrest on corruption charges this morning, saying he must relinquish his leadership post for the good of the chamber, his constituents and the entire state of New York.

Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb, who remained fairly quiet when other Republicans were calling for Silver’s head during the sexual harassment scandal involving former Assemblyman Vito Lopez, now says it’s “imperative” that the speaker step down “immediately,” adding:

“His resignation as Speaker is in the best interest of the Assembly, of the State, and the best way for us to conduct the business that we are elected to do. We cannot afford this distraction with the important business before the Assembly and the people of New York State.”

It’s not clear to me why Kolb has experienced this change of heart. His previous position was that it wasn’t his place to meddle in the business of the Democratic conference, since Silver didn’t tell him how to run his conference (and he has had his share of detractors).

“The ultimate goal is saying ‘whose scandal is this?’ it’s not ours,” Kolb said back in 2013. “So let’s look and hold the people accountable for whose scandal it is.

Than again, the sexual harassment mess – and secret payouts to keep Lopez’s accusers and former aides quiet – was an internal problem with the Democratic conference, where this is a much bigger issue – corruption, which has claimed victims on both sides of the aisle and in both houses of the Legislature.

And, of course, Silver has been arrested and formally charged by the feds, which elevates this situation to a whole new level.

UPDATE: Speaking to reporters earlier today, Kolb said he is “not a person in this business that does personal attacks – never have, never will.”

“Having said that, when it comes to public policy, I think at this point in time when there’s actually an arrest, there’s a clear serious matter to take up,” the assemblyman continued. “And, you know, also the justice system is working on the other things the speaker was dealing with the Vito Lopez case. But I think this certainly raised to the level that he would be servely harmed, I think, by continuing on. I think he should resign as speaker. He does not have to resign as a member unless he’s convicted of a felony.”

One of Kolb’s critics, Assemblywoman Claudia Tenney, also called for Silver to resign (not the first time she has done so). She called the speaker “a disgrace to the people of New York and a blemish on all those who serve the public in this state. It is time to put the Silver era behind us once and for all.” Tenney also said the governor should get involved here and pressure Silver, a fellow Democrat, to depart.

“The politics of New York have for too long been three men in a room. The culture of corruption is pervasive as pay-offs, backroom deals, and cronyism are business as usual in Albany. This is unacceptable. Silver’s arrest is simply the latest indicator we need substantial reform in Albany,” the assemblywoman said.

“We should immediately move to clean up Albany. Career politician syndrome enabled this ignominious day in the history of New York. We need to institute real term limits, cut legislative pay and benefits, slash the length of the session, and restore the faith of the people in their public officials.”

Another female member of the Assembly GOP conference, Staten Island’s Nicole Malliotakis, who briefly eyed a potential run for the seat of disgraced former Rep. Michael Grimm, but stepped aside for the party favorite, DA Dan Donovan, also is calling for Silver to resign – and it’s not the first time for her, either.

“It is beyond time for Sheldon Silver to step down as Speaker of the Assembly,” the assemblywoman said. “The demands of running the chamber and serving the taxpayers cannot be compromised by charges of corruption and a judicial proceeding of this magnitude. There is no doubt that New Yorkers desperately need and deserve new leadership of ‘the People’s House’.”

State GOP spokesman David Laska issued a statement calling for Silver’s immediate resignation, calling this another “sad day for New York,” and insisting that it should not serve as a distraction from “the important business of growing our economy and creating jobs.”

Onondaga County GOP Chairman Tom Dadey also got in on the fun, calling the situation with Silver “deeply troubling” and saying the Democratic Assembly members from Central New York should join him in demanding that the speaker step down.

“On their own, these allegations will only grow the distrust New Yorkers now feel towards Albany,” Dadey said. “We need more transparency and disclosure, stronger ethics laws, term limits and we need to eliminate the bad apples. I am hopeful that our local Assembly delegation, including Assembly members (Bill) Magnarelli, (Sam) Roberts and (Al) Stirpe will show true leadership and call for the Speaker’s ouster.”

So far, the Democrats haven’t said very much. Still no statement from the governor, for example. Members of Silver’s conference are discussing this matter behind closed doors and will be issuing a joint statement soon, I’m told.

A source who has spoken to some of the members mentioned as potential Silver successors, should it come to that, said everyone is keeping their powder dry for now. Timing is everything here. A wannabe speaker who pulls the trigger on his or her effort to oust the wounded leader too soon, only to see him survive this scandal as he has survived other (albeit smaller) scandals before, would no doubt be wandering the wilderness for many years.

That said, a wannabe Silver successor who doesn’t start lining up his or her supporters and make a move in a timely fashion could risk missing the opportunity to become one of the most powerful people in the state.

Aubry: Conference Remains ‘Supportive’ Of Silver

As Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver faces potential criminal charges, one of his top deputies in the chamber says the large Democratic majority will stick by the Manhattan Democrat.

Assemblyman Jeff Aubry told reporters this morning the conference — which accounts for 106 out of the 150 members in the Assembly — remained “supportive” of Silver.

“We are supportive of our speaker as always,” Aubry said. “We have a task to do in front of us — we have a budget to consider.”

Silver’s indictment has thrown a wrench into a regularly scheduled legislative session day in Albany.

Assembly Democrats plan to conference at 10:30 this morning, Assembly Majority Leader Joe Morelle said.

A press availability will be held after then. One source said that the session for the Assembly today would be cancelled.

Aubry, a Queens Democrat, noted that only a few weeks ago Democrats in the conference had re-elected Silver to another term as speaker, a post he’s held since 1994.

At the same time, Aubry pointed to Mel Miller, a predecessor of Silver’s in the speaker’s chair, who was indicted for corruption, but stay on as the top lawmaker in the Assembly despite the charges (he was later convicted and removed from office).

“They elected him as speaker a couple of weeks ago,” Aubry said. “I don’t see anything that changes that at the moment unless this goes in a negative way for him.”

Other top Assembly Democrats were less enthusiastic.

“I have no reaction,” said Assemblyman Keith Wright when reached by phone.

Successors Few And Far Between For Silver

By default or by design, there are few successors in the Democratic conference to take the helm from Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who reportedly faces a pending arrest on corruption charges.

Silver has ruled the chamber with basically unquestioned authority since 1994, save for a 2000 leadership coup brought by Assemblyman Michael Bragman of the Syracuse area.

In the well documented challenge to his post, Silver punished the instigators but also learned to be a better leader of the conference and listen to individual concerns raised by members.

At the same time, Silver gently could encourage fast-raising stars in his conference to seek higher office, be it the state Senate or Congress — essentially removing those who could one day take over.

To be sure, the rumblings are yet to even begin about who would replace the longtime speaker and an indictment would not automatically remove him from office.

Silver, too, has survived previous headaches in past, including a sexual harassment scandal that involved his office securing more than $100,000 in settlement funds to women who accused then-Assemblyman Vito Lopez of abusive behavior.

Silver’s work at his law firm and his outside income has long come under scrutiny, and while he’s been criticized at times for a symbol of Albany dysfunction, his members have often rallied around him.

Nevertheless, there are enough rank-and-file members in the chamber who could succeed Silver, at least on a temporary basis.

Perhaps the most natural successor could be Assembly Majority Leader Joe Morelle, a Rochester-area Democrat who was elevated to the second-ranking post in 2013.

Morelle is an upstater and is tight with Gov. Andrew Cuomo, which could count against him, even in the long run.

Downstate, there are more options, including some longtime lieutenants of the speaker who could easily assume the role for the time being as something of a caretaker.

That includes Assembly Ways and Means Committee Chairman Denny Farrell, Assemblyman Keith Wright (a former state Democratic committee co-chair who has close ties with Cuomo) and Brooklyn Assemblyman Joe Lentol.

Of the more ambitions members, there’s Bronx Assemblyman Carl Heastie, who could be a more long-term replacement for Silver.

In the long run, it’s more likely that the 100-plus member Democratic conference — which is predominantly composed of downstate lawmakers — will push for the first female speaker or a member of the black and Latino caucus (It’s chairman, Assemblyman Karim Camara, a Brooklyn Democrat, is joining the Cuomo administration to work on faith-based programs).

The First Democratic Call For Silver To Resign

It comes not from a member of the speaker’s Democratic conference, but a state senator, Brad Hoylman of Manhattan.

Silver Turns Himself In

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver turned himself in to federal authorities and is in FBI custody, sources said.

Silver turned himself in to authorities at 8 a.m. this morning.

It is not clear what charges Silver faces.

The Manhattan Democrat has led the chamber since 1994.

But the U.S. attorney’s office has been investigating Silver’s income from a law firm that has done business before the state when it comes to the real estate industry.

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara’s office took custody of records generated by the Moreland Commission To Investigate Public Corruption after it was shut down by Gov. Andrew Cuomo last year.

Looking Back at Mel Miller, the Last Speaker Indicted (& Convicted) of Wrongdoing

As we await more details in the case of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver – according to reports, he is now in FBI custody – it might be instructive to take a look back at the history of those who have found themselves in similar situations.

The last speaker who was indicted – and subsequently found guilty – of wrongdoing was former Assemblyman Mel Miller, a Brooklyn Democrat.

Miller’s conviction in December 1991 on federal fraud charges forced his immediate loss of both his Assembly seat and his leadership post. Miller, who was once one of the state’s most powerful lawmakers, was eventually cleared by a federal appeals court in 1993, but by then, his career in elected office was long over, though he stayed involved in politics by becoming a lobbyist.

Miller and top aide, Jay Adolf, were orginally charged in 1990 with committing fraud in conntection with the buying and selling of cooperative apartments between 1984 and 1986 when they were partners in the law firm of Adolf & Miller.

While representing clients who were buying apartments, according to the feds, Miller and Adolf secretly bought some of the apartments for themselves and then sold the units at a profit of $300,000 while also collecting $238,000 in legal fees.

Both men insisted they had done noting wrong, and Miller’s attorney said his client was among “a hunted class of well-known politicians.” (Sound familiar?) At the time, Senate Minority Leader Manfred Ohrenstein, a Manhattan Democrat, was awaiting trial on state charges that he misused public money by placing “no show” workers on his payroll.

(UPDATE):A veteran of NY politics notes I neglected to point out that the most significant charges against Ohrenstein, accusing him of assigning legislative workers to full-time duty on Senate campaigns in 1986, were thrown out in 1990 by the Court of Appeals. And the remaining charges, which involved the award of no-show jobs to political allies, were dropped by then Manhattan DA Robert Morgenthau. The former senator was subsequently partially reimbursed by the state (a la former Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno) for his legal bills to the tune of $1.3 million.

Miller, who was first elected in 1970 by voters in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, was the third of the last four Assembly speakers to be indicted but the first to be convicted. He was also the 10th state lawmaker to be indicted since 1987. (The list is considerably longer now, I believe up to 33 and counting, with the trial of former Sen. Malcolm Smith, a Queens Democrat, underway and former Senate Majority Leader John Sampson, a Brooklyn Democrat, awaiting his day in court).

In January 1993, an appeals court threw out the convictions of both Miller and Adolf, ruling that a financial group the two represented had no contractual rights to the profits in question, so the investors could not have been defrauded.

In between his indictment and his conviction, Miller held on to the speaker’s office. And Silver could indeed try to do the same, but there will no doubt be calls for him to relinquish that post if and when he is arrested and charged.

Those calls will no doubt start with the Republicans, who have used Silver as a foil in recent years – especially since his role in the secret settlement of sexual harassment charges lodged against former Brooklyn Democratic Assemblyman Vito Lopez. (That case is still playing out in court, and Silver has been named in a lawsuit brought by two former Looez aides who claim they were harassed by their ex-boss).

But Silver is elected by his fellow Democratic Assembly members, and only they can decide if they want to keep him as their leader. As I mentioned earlier today, there is no clear successor to Silver, though several members have been mentioned in the past. (I forgot to add Assemblyman Jeff Aubry, a Queens Democrat, to that list, though his health – he suffered a heart attack in 2002 – could be a concern to some of his colleagues; being the speaker is a high stress job).

Silver was easily re-elected to another two-year term as speaker earlier this month, even as reports of the US attorney’s investigation into his outside income hung over his head. He had just a few detractors – freshman Assemblyman Charles Barron, a freshman from Brooklyn who is basically a professional detractor, and Assemblyman Mickey Kearns, a WNY Democrat who been at odds with Silver pretty much since before he arrived in Albany.

Another big question is what Gov. Andrew Cuomo will do here. He has studiously avoided getting involved in Assembly Democratic politics, though there has always beens speculation that he would prefer to see someone other than Silver in the speaker’s office. The governor doesn’t have a vote in the speaker election, but he does have a BIG bully pulpit.

Miller’s conviction caused a headache for Cuomo’s father, former Gov. Mario Cuomo. It’s unlikely the current governor Cuomo would sit by and let chaos rule in the Assembly chamber, potentially derailing – at least temporarily – his reform agenda in Albany. After all, as my friend and colleague at Capital NY Jimmy Vielkind likes to say, chaos is decidedly not Cuomonian.

Silver’s ’08 Opponent: ‘Sad Day for NY’

So far, there hasn’t been a lot in the way of reaction from lawmakers in Albany. (It’s pretty early yet, and the NYT story broke after midnight).

But Democratic District Leader Paul Newell, one of two Democrats who mounted long-shot and unsuccessful primary challenges to Silver in 2008 – the speaker’s first Democratic primary contest in over two decades – was the first to release a statement.

Newell, who represents the 65th AD (Silver’s district), said if the report of the speaker’s imminent arrest is true, then it is a “sad day for Lower Manhattan, and a sad day for New York.”

“I can’t speak to the specific charges against the Speaker,” Newell added. “But I can say that outside income for legislators is a certain recipe for corruption. Speaker Silver and Majority Leader Skelos should have banned it long ago.”

“The 65th Assembly District, and all New Yorkers, deserve better.”

If Silver is lead away in cuffs today, it will definitely strengthen the position of Gov. Andrew Cuomo is many ways – not the least of which is his push for a cap on outside income by state lawmakers and more transparency in the reporting of what they earn while moonlighting.