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Postscript: Sheldon Silver and the Moreland Commission

This article is a postscript to “How Sheldon Silver’s Scandal Reveals Albany’s Corruption.

On January 22, Democrats from New York’s State Assembly emerged ashen faced from behind closed doors after a last-ditch attempt to save their long-serving patron, Sheldon Silver. Mr. Silver, an assemblyman of 38 years and Speaker for 21, had just been arrested by the FBI and indicted in federal court on five corruption charges.

When news emerged of Silver’s arrest, Albany’s political machine set into a deep freeze. The Assembly lost more than a week of official business as 105 skittish Democrats commenced backroom politicking. Teachers unions cashed in their chips. The gaming industry did the same, literally. Both interests had bills before the legislature that depended on Silver’s backing.  “I am the speaker,” declared Silver on that Monday. “I’m standing and I’m going to be standing for a long time.” He was deposed as Speaker the next day.

“Corruption’s such an old song that we can sing along in harmony,” goes a musical now playing in New York. “And nowhere is it stronger than in Albany.” U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, the man who took down Sheldon Silver, was more direct. Albany, he said, sits at the “intersection of ambition and greed.”

Andrew Cuomo vowed to clean up New York when he was first elected governor of the state. After these initial campaign promises failed to materialize, the governor announced with great fanfare that he was setting up the Moreland Commission to “probe systemic corruption.” The commission began issuing subpoenas and its co-chair soon declared that he had found evidence of criminal activity in the legislature.

Behind the scenes, the governor had convinced the commission to not subpoena certain prominent state legislators, as well as to avoid the Real Estate Board of New York, a major donor of his. His office hinted at the interests that may be threatened by such an inquiry, particularly related to a “valuable tax break for new housing.” When commission staffers next began asking around about a media-buying firm connected with the governor, a senior Cuomo aide said to the commission’s co-chair, “Pull it back,” and it was so.

Around this time, Sheldon Silver had received one of those subpoenas and refused to cooperate, later calling it a “fishing expedition.” He instead led the New York Assembly itself to file a motion in the State Supreme Court to quash the commission’s inquiry.

Days before Preet Bharara was due to arrive at the commission’s Manhattan office to pick up its findings, the governor quietly disbanded the commission. “It’s my commission,” declared the governor. “It’s controlled by me.” It was later revealed that Silver and his staff played a central role in the decision by the governor to end the Moreland Commission.

Upon declaring the news of the commission’s death to its staff, a senior aide to Governor Cuomo jubilantly asked, “Are you doing shots?” The next day, Preet Bharara directed his investigators to race to the commission’s office to box up its files.

When Bharara later dropped his 35-page complaint against Speaker Sheldon Silver, hours after Governor Cuomo’s State of the State address, he included in it a small aside that his office had “received from the Moreland Commission its files and documents. […] Certain of these documents and leads contained therein are reflected in this Complaint.”

As the complaint hints, Sheldon Silver may simply be the beginning.