Sheldon Silver

The Real Reason There May Be No Special Election on April 19

Vacancies, vacancies, vacancies. Every year it feels like there are a bunch of open seats in the Legislature, and so begins the long dance over when (or if) to call a special election. This year there are two quite notable open seats: Those once held by Dean Skelos and Sheldon Silver.

Last month, Gov. Andrew Cuomo suggested that he would call a special election on April 19, which would line up local races with New York’s presidential primary. He hasn’t officially done so yet, and he has until early February to make a final decision. That gives the governor some leeway, although not a ton.

Some had suggested that Democrats on Long Island had asked him to hold off. They have selected Assemblyman Todd Kaminsky as their candidate to run for the Skelos seat, and as Jimmy Vielkind astutely pointed out, Democrats have fretted that a fluid national Republican Primary could boost Republican turnout on Strong Island.

But here is another reason I was recently told April may not work. According to a source, the New York City Board of Elections simply cannot handle it. Apparently, there are separate computer programs for local races and national races, and holding them simultaneously that day would be too much for the board. I mean, let’s face it, competence was never their strong suit. Silver’s seat is in lower Manhattan, so the NYC Board would be in charge of holding the election for the Silver seat that day.

That leaves two other possibilities.

1) Cuomo could call the special to line up with that new, weird congressional primary day that takes place in June. June 28th is the day this year.

2) Cuomo could push it to Sept. 7th, which is the day of the state primaries. Whichever date is picked will greatly affect the race for Silver’s seat. Yesterday, Manhattan Democratic leaders had been scheduled to meet to discuss who they might endorse for the seat, but the meeting was cancelled due to all the uncertainty surrounding the date of the election. If the April 19 date were to work, then the local Democratic committee in the financial district would choose who gets the seat. In that case, New York County leaders would likely get involved.

Full disclosure before I go any further: I actually live in Lower Manhattan so this race is my district. So, not only did I have the privilege of covering Shelly Silver, he was also my assemblyman, and I should say that I found him very responsive to my constituent needs. (I’m just kidding about the last part).

So far there are at least three candidates who are looking to run for the seat – Jenifer Rajkumar, a Democratic district leader; Paul Newell, who is also a Democratic district leader and has the distinction of losing to Silver in a 2008 primary – the first the then-speaker had faced in two decades; and Yuh-Line Niou who is chief of staff to Assemblyman Ron Kim.

According to one insider, Rajkumar and Newell seem to be splitting the vote, since they are trying to lock up committee support from the same committee they both represent as district leaders. Also, some Chinatown leaders don’t like Rajkumar because she ran against NYC Councilwoman Margaret Chin. Niou seems to be getting much of that critical Chinatown political support, even though she doesn’t live there. She actually lives in a more fancy shmancy part of the district further downtown.

If the election is held in June, it will also be a committee selection, but if it’s pushed to September there would be an open primary. There will actually be a primary regardless, so even if a candidate is chosen, he or she would still potentially have to fight off challengers in September. Obviously, if someone is already sitting in that seat they have the advantages of incumbency going into that primary. So, now it really comes down to which date will be selected.

ted knight

Damage Control (Updated)

An astute reader forwarded this photo of a full-page ad that appeared in today’s New York Times, courtesy of Weitz & Luxenberg.

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That’s the Manhattan law firm perhaps best known (in political circles, anyway) for its key role in the corruption scandal of now former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, and in legal circles for representing clients suffering from mesothelioma, an asbestos-related cancer.

Weitz & Luxenberg, as you’ll recall, for many years employed Silver on an “of counsel” basis – a situation that basically consisted of him acting like a rainmaker for the firm, directing clients there and never actually practicing any law on their behalf.

Central to US Attorney Preet Bharara’s successful case against Silver was a bribery scheme in which the former speaker directed state grants to a Columbia University oncologist who specialized in mesothelioma research in exchange for the doctor directing his patients to Weitz & Luxenberg, netting Silver lucrative legal fees.

Silver did report his outside income from Weitz & Luxenberg, though it was never completely clear exactly how much he earned from the firm and what – if anything – he actually did there. The firm severed ties with the former assemblyman after he was arrested on corruption charges by Bharara.

According to the New York Post, Weitz & Luxenberg has seen a significant drop in new cases since Silver’s arrest last January. Citing court records, the paper reported that the firm has filed only 218 lawsuits in Manhattan Supreme Court’s New York City Asbestos Litigation division this year, compared with 262 in 2014. It also marked only 70 cases as “ready for trial” in 2015, compared with 128 in 2014 and 158 in 2013.

UPDATE: To be clear, Bharara’s complaint against Silver did not allege any wrongdoing by Weitz & Luxenberg, and the subsequent trial revealed that the firm had no knowledge of the former assemblyman’s illegal doings, nor was it complicit in them.

Kolb: Progress, Not Change In Silver-to-Heastie Switch

The change in leadership in the Assembly following Sheldon Silver’s ouster due to a federal corruption scandal hasn’t resulted in significant change, according to the chamber’s leading Republican.

Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb said during an interview on AM970’s “Effective Radio with Bill Samuels” this weekend that the “only difference” between Silver and his successor, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, is that Heastie “is paying more attention to his rank-and-file membership.”

Kolb noted that it was unrest among the rank-and-file that led to a failed coup attempt on Silver by former Syracuse-area Assemblyman Michael Bragman in 2000 – the same year Heastie was elected to represent his Bronx district in Albany.

“I think what Carl is saying (is), ‘I’m going to be more attentive to my members so they’ll be happier so I won’t have any insurrections internally,” Kolb told Samuels. “And that’s what he’s doing differently than Shelly.”

During this past session, Heastie, who took over for Silver in early February, made a big effort to listen to and empower his Democratic conference members – even when that meant drawing out negotiations with the governor and the Senate.

The new speaker pledged to change the way the chamber does business to give more clout to rank-and-file members, and he appointed a 12-member working group in April to address the issue.

But Kolb and his fellow Republicans have been largely disappointed by the ongoing lack of parity they have experienced in the chamber under Heastie, though the minority leader did admit the speaker this year allocated capital infrastructure cash to his GOP conference – something Silver “never did.”

The Republicans got $4.4 million to split, Kolb said, while some members – including Assembly Majority Leader Joe Morelle, a Rochester Democrat who battled Heastie for the speakership – received many times more than that for just a single project.

“That’s not change, that’s progress,” Kolb said. “That’s not even fair, and that happens with both majorities in both houses.”

“And that’s sort of where the financial abuse is – not that we shouldn’t have discretionary money to help our districts – but it should be out in the open,” the minority leader continued. “There should be parity, so that no one is getting a political advantage – Republican or Democrat.”

Supporters of Alix’s Law Optimistic In A ‘Post-Silver’ Assembly

With a new leader in the State Assembly there’s new optimism a few proposed laws that have been blocked will finally make it to the floor for a vote this legislative session.  One piece of legislation would eliminate a loophole in the state’s hit-and-run law.

It’s called Alix’s law, after Western New York teenager Alix Rice who was hit and killed by a drunk driver in 2011.  After four years of waiting, Rice’s father told Time Warner Cable News Reporter Ryan Whalen he has high hopes under new Speaker Carl Heastie

“Our new Speaker has a golden opportunity at this time to put a positive stamp on his leadership of this Assembly,” said Richard Rice.

Under the proposed law, drivers would not be able to argue they were unaware they hit a person or caused damage to property, if they were drunk.  The man who hit and killed Alix Rice was convicted of a misdemeanor, but avoided conviction on the more serious charges he faced.

Rice believes former Speaker Sheldon Silver was only thing standing in the way of the bill that was passed again this year in the State Senate.

“When I talked to him about it he said it was just too controversial to introduce to the Assembly,” Rice said.

The bill has another thing going for it, it’s sponsored in the Assembly by Buffalo’s Crystal Peoples-Stokes.  Stokes is a strong ally of Speaker Heastie and hasn’t been shy about exercising her new found influence.

Much like the new found optimism surrounding the Mixed Martial Arts legislation, in a “post-Silver Assembly,” Rice feels the bill is closer to becoming law than it’s ever been.  Still he’s keeping his fingers crossed.

“It will give me a feeling that she did something great for the world even though it wasn’t really by choice,” Rice added.

Who Blinks First?

Today is March 4. Gov. Andrew Cuomo released his 30-day budget amendments, which jammed the Legislature by stuffing ever more policy (particularly ethics reforms) into appropriations bills, on Feb. 21 – almost two weeks ago.

So far, neither the Senate nor the Assembly has introduced Cuomo’s amendments – a move required before they can be formally considered by state lawmakers.

As Newsday’s Mike Gormley reported, the Assembly issued a statement Sunday night pledging to get the introduction process started, but gave no timeline for doing so. And, as of last night, the chamber still had yet to take action.

In a statement given to Gormley over the weekend and re-issued to me last night, Mike Whyland, spokesman for Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, said the amendments would “of course” be printed “because the Constitution requires us to act on them as submitted.”

“We are reviewing them with members,” Whyland continued, “and we continue to negotiate in good faith on all of the issues – including the ethics reform package. We will be meeting with the governor to further discuss the budget this week.”

Sources familiar with the Senate Republicans’ thinking say they are holding back on introductions because they’re reviewing “all options” in response to the governor’s hardball budget tactics – including a possible lawsuit revisiting the landmark 2004 Court of Appeals decision on the division of budget power between the executive and legislative branches.

That decision is commonly referred to in Albany as “Silver v. Pataki,” and it’s actually the result of two separate cases brought against then-Gov. George Pataki by the Assembly, which believed he was overstepping his executive powers by inserting policy into appropriations bills, over which the Legislature has very little control.

I wrote about this issue for Capital NY a few weeks back, speaking to a number of key players in the Silver v. Pataki cases – including former Judge Robert Smith, who wrote the plurality opinion under which the Capitol is currently operating.

Most legal experts and Capitol observers agree the decision is ripe for revisitation, especially since the judges determined there is indeed a line over which the governor might step when it comes to using the budget as a policy-making vehicle. The trouble is, the court declined to define where that line is.

Most agree that the governor’s insertion of ethics reform – specifically tying per diem changes and disclosure requirements to the state comptroller’s budget – is a stretch of even the limited boundaries defined in Silver v. Pataki.

Just today, Daily News columnist Bill Hammond wrote of the “dangerous precedent” being set by Cuomo’s use of his sweeping budgetary authority, raising concerns that future governors could “easily” abuse this power.

The problem is, challenging the governor’s ethics reform push in court would be terrible for the Legislature from an optics standpoint.

The scandal-weary public is highly unlikely to understand the esoteric argument about restoring a balance of power in Albany – especially when that involves giving more of a say to the Legislature, of which most New Yorkers don’t have the highest opinion these days.

Cuomo is well aware of this, and he also believes he’s on sound legal footing, having consulted with a number of attorneys – including Pataki’s former counsel, Jim McGuire, who is widely acknowledged as the architect behind the then-governor’s winning strategy in Pataki v. Silver.

The Assembly is no happier than the Senate with Cuomo’s budget bullying, but seems a bit less anxious to challenge his authority here – perhaps due to the fact that it is still reeling from the change in leadership and trying to get its sea legs under the new speaker, Carl Heastie.

Generally speaking, lawmakers are trying to determine whether it’s worth going to war with Cuomo now, or waiting to see if he’s really serious about being willing to risk a late budget – and a government shutdown – to get what he wants in ethics reform.

In the past, Cuomo has been willing to make deals, calling half a loaf a victory. But if he deviates from his track record this time and refuses to submit new, re-negotiated budget bills before the April 1 deadline, the Legislature could be in trouble.

Silver Enters Not Guilty Plea, Seeks To Toss Case

Former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver on Tuesday entered a not guilty plea following his indictment on three counts of fraud and extortion.

Silver’s attorney, meanwhile, sought to have a federal judge toss prosecutor’s case from court based on U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara’s “improper” comments on public corruption following Silver’s arrest in January.

Silver is accused of receiving $3.8 million in bribes and kickbacks that he masked as legal referrals from a doctor who was conducting research into asbestos exposure as well as real-estate interests.

“I will only say to you that once this process is over I will be vindicated, I am not guilty,” Silver outside of court.

Silver stepped down from the speaker’s post last month and was replaced by Bronx Democrat Carl Heastie. He retains his seat in the Legislature representing Lower Manhattan.

A trial is expected to begin as early as June.

Silver’s arrest ignited yet another push to enact ethics legislation at the Capitol, with lawmakers and Gov. Andrew Cuomo negotiating new laws that would regulate how outside income is disclosed.

Tonko Recalls ‘Honorable’ Interactions With Silver

From today’s Morning Memo, ICYMI…

Since former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s arrest, any number of people – even some of his former allies – have expressed shock and even disgust at the charges levied against him by Bharara.

But one of his former conference members – ex-Assemblyman-turned-Congressman Paul Tonko – has only good memories of his time working in the Silver-dominated chamber. Tonko said during a CapTon interview Wednesday night (the day before Silver was formally indicted on corruption charges) that the interactions he had with the former speaker were “honorable.”

The former assemblyman also took issue with rank-and-file members’ complaints that Silver was too controlling and ruled the chamber with an iron fist.

“I was surprised by the allegations,” Tonko said. “I know that as Energy (Committee) chair, I was given gray latitude and support by the speaker to initiative energy reforms that I think have transitioned us to a pretty good spot in the national scene. This state is looked to often times for sound energy reform and transformation, innovation. That happened because he enabled us. He delegated.”

Tonko said he disagrees with Bharara’s painting of Albany as a big cesspool of corruption, saying:

“It’s a broad brush that is paining everyone here. I served with a number of people who were devoted public servants, who made this their No. 1 priority, and they did it squeaky clean. They were great to work with, and I would suggest that was the majority of folks.”

“…If some of these situations occur, let’s work on a system that provides for the transparency,” the Capital Region Democrat continued. “But to just suggest that everybody is not honorable in the system can take us into such broad interpretation of the fix that’s rehired that you might scare away from very good minds and heats that would serve the public well.”

Silver Indicted On Three Counts Of Fraud, Extortion

This post has been updated throughout:

A federal grand jury on Thursday voted to indict former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver on three counts of mail and wire fraud and extortion.

Silver’s indictment by the grand jury was announced via the Twitter account for the Southern District of New York.

The indictment follows Silver’s arrest last month on a five-count criminal complaint that alleged Silver received $3.8 million in bribes and kickbacks that he masked as legal referrals for both real-estate interests as well as a doctor performing research on illnesses caused by asbestos exposure.

Silver has insisted he is innocent of the charges and expects to be vindicated.

“We can now begin to fight for his total vindication,” Silver’s attorneys said in a statement. “We will do our fighting where it should be done: in court.”

Silver was replaced at the speaker’s post earlier this month by Bronx Democrat Carl Heastie.

Federal prosecutors had until Monday to indict Silver and an arraignment is expected in the coming days.

In addition to the federal legal troubles, Silver faces a $120,000 fine from state ethics regulators for failing to disclose his outside income.

Despite the initial five-count complaint, Silver faces three charges in the official indictment: Mail and wire fraud stemming from theft of honest services as well extortion.

Federal prosecutors allege that Silver went to great lengths to conceal the breath and scope of his outside income and private practices.

According to the indictment released on Thursday, Silver “sought to prevent, and in fact prevented, the disclosure of information about his outside income to the Moreland Commission” — the anti-corruption panel Gov. Andrew Cuomo created in 2013, which was shutdown last year.

The indictment states Silver kept the law firm Weitz & Luxenberg, the firm where he was of counsel until he was put on leave following his corruption arrest, in the dark about the extent of his alleged activities.

The indictment notes that Silver was hired by the firm in 2002 for $120,000 with the expectation he was not to work on or refer cases, but because of his “stature” as the speaker of the Assembly.

Silver’s arrest has spurred more talk in Albany of passing ethics legislation that would address lawmakers earning outside income, including new disclosure requirements for those who have private legal clients.

US v Sheldon Silver Indictment by Nick Reisman

Silver, Now 1 Out Of 150

In the end, he did not hinder the process of electing a new speaker.

From his desk at the back of the chamber, Assemblyman Sheldon Silver of Manhattan cast one vote on Tuesday. It was for Bronx lawmaker Carl Heastie to succeed him as speaker of the chamber.

Silver’s fall as one of the most powerful men in state government began on Jan. 22, when he was arrested on five charges of corruption stemming from accusations that he used legal referrals to mask bribes and kickbacks totaling millions of dollars.

Ten days later, Silver has lost his gavel and the best seat in the chamber.

Re-elected to another two-year term as speaker less than a month ago, the sight of Silver as another rank-and-file legislator sitting was humbling and a stark manifestation of the loss of power.

Silver entered the chamber shortly after the roll call vote began, meandering over to a desk on the Assembly’s right-hand side near a large window covered with red draping.

Silver rocked back in the brown swivel chair to members during the voice vote for speaker as well as through most of the discussion for the resolution honoring civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King.

At one point, he opened the single drawer afforded to the small desk. It was empty.

Occasionally lawmakers — including Assemblyman Robin Schimminger and Sen. Michael Gianaris — came by to shake his hand, wish him well.

During the discussion of the resolution for King, Silver checked the messages on his Blackberry.

Other times, Silver could be seen with his chin meeting his chest, his eyes closing slightly.

Then, in the middle of discussion of the resolution, Silver got up and walked out the chamber.

He was trailed by a long line of reporters who had been waiting to speak with him.

“I’m just making a phone call, guys,” Silver said in his husky voice. “I’m just making a phone call.”

Silver clearly had his car keys with him.

Outside the chamber, Silver ran into even more reporters who were waiting for the new speaker to give his first press conference.

Silver ducked into an office off the floor of the chamber with the phone to his ear. Reporters waited in front of the office’s threshold.

The Assembly’s sergeant-at-arms, Wayne Jackson, came over to the office’s wood-paneled doors and closed both of them.

After a short time, Jackson re-opened the doors to the office.

Like a magic trick, Silver was gone.

Process For Speaker Conducted Behind The Scenes

From the Morning Memo:

The speaker of the New York state Assembly is one of the most powerful positions in state government.

But Carl Heastie’s rise to replace embattled Speaker Sheldon Silver was achieved in typical Albany fashion: mostly behind closed doors.

“What happened to all the hearings, the forums, the questions,” said Assemblyman Jim Tedisco, a Clifton Park Republican. “We were going to have all the answer. Where’s this reform group in the New York state Assembly majority?”

Over the last seven days Democratic lawmakers have predominantly spent time in closed-door meetings discussing who should replace Silver and when. And a vote that was originally scheduled for February 10, will now be held Tuesday — less than two weeks after Silver was arrested on corruption charges.

“There has been a public airing,” Majority Leader Joe Morelle said. “There’s been a lot of news articles about the various candidates. We’ve gone through and talked to our colleagues. We’ve done this in a way that has always been done.”

Heastie rapidly gained the support of his colleagues over the last several days, even as reports surfaced of his heavy per diem use and the intersection of his campaigns donors and those who receive member items. Queens Assemblywoman Cathy Nolan, who challenged Heastie for the speakership until it was clear he had enough votes to win, decried the fast-moving process.

“I think it was ill-advised,” Nolan said. “We did say we were going to do Feb. 10. But sometimes that happens.”

Meanwhile, lawmakers at times have defended the closed-door meetings, noting they can’t have frank conversations in the glare of the klieg lights.

But often lawmakers have emerged from the meetings to reveal little of what was discussed.

Heastie himself met with a group of reform minded lawmakers Monday afternoon and emerged to say little.

“It wouldn’t be a private conversation if I told about the conversation,” Heastie said afterword.

Good government groups, meanwhile, had hoped for a more open process in selecting a speaker.

“If they really stand behind the words that they put out on reform than they should have done something to demand this be a much more public process,” said Citizens Union Executive Director Dick Dadey.

The transparency issues manifested themselves in different ways, beyond the closed-door process.

During the leadership fight, access to normally public hallways at the Capitol like this one behind me has been restricted.

Assembly officials said it was to keep order in the building.