Sheldon Silver, the powerful former speaker of the New York State Assembly, went down last week—again—on corruption charges. Silver was convicted in 2015 of pocketing nearly $4 million in kickbacks and bribes, but the verdict was overturned in 2016 after the Supreme Court’s McDonnell decision narrowed the legal definition of public corruption. Prosecutors, said McDonnell, must show a quid-pro-quo “official action” to prove honest services fraud. Actions such as “setting up a meeting, talking to another official, or organizing an event” would not cut it, the court ruled. “To qualify as an ‘official act,’ the public official must make a decision or take an action on that question or matter, or agree to do so.” Much handwringing followed the decision, including from these quarters, saying that the Court had set the bar too high. Those concerns seemed justified last year when Senator Robert Menendez beat a corruption rap in part due to McDonnell.
But in the Silver case, prosecutors got it right. And in doing so, they set a new standard for prosecuting public corruption. Not only were they able to demonstrate clear quid-pro-quos, satisfying McDonnell, but they appeared to draw two other valuable lessons from mistakes in the Menendez case: keep it short, and keep it simple. Menendez rambled on for more than two months and featured a globe-trotting cast of colorful characters, some of whom had little relation to the matters at hand. The first Silver case ran for a month. The second was over in two weeks. Key witnesses quickly made their points and were gone.
The Silver case revolved around two corrupt schemes. In one, Silver steered cancer research funds to a prominent doctor, who in turn referred lucrative mesothelioma cases to a Silver-aligned law firm, which kicked back more than $3 million to the assembly speaker. In the second scheme, Silver promoted favorable tax legislation for real-estate developers. The developers paid a lawyer handsomely for the tax relief, and the lawyer funneled a cut to his old friend, Silver.
It’s hard to shake the notion that in New York, all this is viewed as business as usual. Where’s the outrage? Silver is one rodent in a long line of rats. The former assembly speaker was one of the infamous “three men in a room” who control New York State government in Albany. The other two are the majority leader of the state Senate, and the governor. The former majority leader, Dean Skelos, also got a McDonnell pass after his 2015 corruption conviction and will be retried in June. A former aide to Governor Andrew Cuomo was convicted in March of pocketing more than $300,000 in bribe schemes. Other allies of the governor will go on trial in June in a bid-rigging case involving billions in state funds. The governor, lest we forget, shut down his own corruption commission. In July, the former leader of the New York City corrections officers’ union faces retrial on bribery charges. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is beset by corruption allegations. A sweeping graft case has rocked the NYPD. And the attorney general of the state has been forced to resign and is under investigation for assaulting four women.
McDonnell and Silver remind us that the law is a living thing, shape-shifting through the courts to chase humankind’s ageless propensity to evil. Who is winning the race these days? On that, in New York, the jury is out.
Micah Morrison is chief investigative reporter for Judicial Watch. Follow him on Twitter @micah_morrison. Tips: email@example.com
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