Earlier this month, Lobbyist Brian Meara testified for the government in the federal corruption trial of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. Meara has known Silver for more than 40 years. He was compelled to testify by trial subpoena. At one point Meara was asked if he remembered the 1997 fight over the rent laws. Meara claimed he did not. Tenant Advocate Michael McKee ( who was right in the middle of that fight ) calls Meara’s assertion “absurd.”

Let’s go back in time.

1997 was the year a newly minted Joe Bruno as Majority Leader declared that the rent protection laws should be permitted to sunset. It was a very contentious session. And on Sunday, June 15th at midnight, the laws expired. Two hours later Sheldon Silver and Governor George Pataki issued a joint press release saying they had reached an agreement in principle. This being Albany of course ( some things never change ), the bill language had yet to be finalized which led to days of advocates on both sides of the issue shuttling between Silver’s outer office off the floor and the Senate lobby where the real estate lobbyists hung out.

The way McKee describes it, that was the year “Silver gave away the store,” and essentially “gutted the system.” In exchange for a 6-year extension, Silver agreed to a number of provisions that greatly weakened the rent laws and tenant rights. That included requiring tenants to pay rent into an escrow account during disputes with landlords, making it easier for tenants to get evicted and perhaps most significantly enshrining into State law vacancy deregulation. That was what one Democrat once described as the “original sin.” While it’s true vacancy decontrol actually began in 1993 ( before Silver was Speaker ),  1997 made it a permanent state of mind. Rent protections would eventually be phased out, it was just a matter of how quickly. Even when Democrats took control of the Senate in 2009, that was not something they rolled back.

Meara was lobbying at the time for the Rent Stabilization Association, which wanted the laws weakened. And according to McKee, he counted Meara walk between Silver’s office and the Senate lobby 17 times to make sure Silver’s proposal would be palatable to the real estate industry. In the end, the deal was cut. The advocates were never shown bill language before the bill went to print. “Silver,” McKee says, “sold us out.”

Supporters of the former Speaker remember it differently. For starters, you had a Republican Governor and a Republican Senate. So, “all hopes were pinned on Shelly.” At the end of the day, he had to cut a deal, despite the loud kicking and screaming from pro-tenant advocates who were “not living in reality.”

I’m not generally someone who likes to poke at old wounds. But some of these older battles may need to be revisited as Silver’s fate goes to the jury. If that jury fails to come back with a conviction ( which I think is possible ), one Albany insider explained that the government is going to try to get him again. That means more pressure on the same witnesses to recall things a little bit more clearly so they can be put back on the stand for a second trial.

It really could go either way for Silver, but what this trial seems to have demonstrated, regardless of Silver’s guilt or innocence, is that he had longstanding relationships with developers. He back channeled with those interests over critical pieces of legislation like the rent protections and 421-a while claiming publicly to be 100% pro-tenant. He also collected referral fees for bringing Glenwood Management’s business to a downtown law firm, Goldberg and Iryami. Silver doesn’t even deny this fact, which is at the heart of the government’s case that Silver engaged in illegal kickback schemes for personal gain. The trial may determine guilt, or it may not. But what it has succeeded in doing is showing where Silver was compromised, making it very tough for him to ever go back and try to be part of leadership in the Assembly. And it might even portend the end of his time as an elected official.