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New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver arrested on federal corruption charges

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  1. Sometime Thursday, federal prosecutors arrested New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, in a move first reported overnight by the New York Times.
  2. Silver, a Democrat from the Lower East Side, has led the lower house of the legislature since 1994.
  3. The five counts include mail and wire fraud and violations of disclosure rules, but fundamentally come down to "$4 million in payments characterized as attorney referral fees solely through the corrupt use of his official position."
  4. Silver does not have to resign his office unless he's convicted of a felony, so a mere indictment should set off an interesting spell in New York.
  5. The charges seem to be a further example of fallout from the collapse of the Moreland Commission, which has already gotten Governor Andrew Cuomo into legal hot water.

Who is Sheldon Silver?

Silver's job title is Speaker of the New York State Assembly, the lower house of the legislature, a position he's held since 1994. Due to his extraordinarily long tenure in office combined with the very strong institutional role of the legislative leadership in New York, that's made him probably the single most important person in the past generation of New York politics.

The saying in Albany is that decisions are made not by the voters or the legislature, but by "three men in a room" — the governor, the Speaker, and the leader of the New York State Senate. Over the past twenty years, governors and Senate leaders have come and gone but Silver has always been one of those three men in the room.

As such, he's had a role in every major policy shift in the state. He's also been the key defender of the institutional status quo in Albany, a status quo that is generally regarded as bathed in corruption and conflicts of interest. Discussions of state government in New York inevitably lead to invocations of the phrase "the mess in Albany" and Silver is, in a sense, the personification of that mess.

Why is Silver in legal trouble?

The specific charge, according to the Times, is that Silver received money from the New York law firm of Goldberg & Iryami, which specializes in New York State real estate taxes. However, in New York it is not illegal for elected officials to receive salaries from outside jobs, including outside jobs that involve small law firms and possible conflicts of interest. There are, however, some minimal disclosure rules you have to comply with when drawing outside income. Silver allegedly failed to properly disclose his Goldberg & Iryami income, payments that "were substantial and were made over several years," according to the Times' sources.

In a technical sense, then, this is a pretty small-bore charge about financial disclosures. But the US Attorney's office also appears to be characterizing larger sums of money that Silver was paid for his legal work as illicit bribes.

It's clear that US Attorney Preet Bharara, whose office is leading the charges, has a larger systemic complaint about the way New York politics works. Back in October he told a radio audience that New York government is "a little bit of a corruption disaster" due to weak ethics rules and large quantities of outside money — including hundreds of thousands of dollars of perfectly legal payments that Silver has received for years from another law firm.

What's the Moreland Commission? How does it relate?

As Andrew Prokop explained previously, the Moreland Commission was created by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo in July 2013 with a wide remit to pursue public integrity investigations in New York. But there are widespread suspicions that Cuomo never wanted to see a truly independent ethics commission so much as he wanted an ethics commission that would give him leverage over state legislators in the dealmaking process. This does not seem to have sat well with former US Attorney Danya Perry who was the chief investigator, and there was plenty of friction between her office and the governor's.

One way or another, the commission ended up getting shut down in March 2014 as part of a larger legislative deal. That's when Bharara's office stepped in, expressing concern that ethics investigations has been compromised as part of a political dealmaking process. Since that time, Bharara's has been investigating interference with the commission, during the course of which he has come into possession of the commission's records. It appears to be evidence from that storehouse of documents that is leading to Silver's arrest.

Is this the first time Silver's been in ethics trouble?

Nope. To some observers the surprise was not so much that Silver got arrested but that it's taken him this long. Here's MSNBC's Chris Hayes, a New Yorker and a keen observer of the local political scene apart from his primetime work on national affairs.

In 2001, Silver's chief counsel Michael Boxley was accused of raping a Senate aide, and Silver came to his defense. Two years later, another woman accused Boxley of rape and he resigned and pled guilty to sexual assault charges. Silver was also involved in the coverup of sexual harassment by Assemblyman Vito Lopez  and concerns about his handling of sexual harassment charges against Micah Kellner, another assembly member.

There are also longstanding concerns about Silver's finances. In 2013, he earned $650,000 in income from law firms, much of it from the firm of Weitz & Luxenberg. That firm has consistently paid Silver generously over the years, but he's never seen fit to explain what kind of legal work it is he does for them to justify his hefty fees. These kinds of arrangements are legal in New York, though of course direct quid pro quos in which legal fees are paid in exchange for policy concessions are not.

Bharara has made it clear that he thinks these arrangements deserve more scrutiny. In the October radio interview he said:

You've got all sorts of problems, but one that people have been right to focus on lately — you have the unrestricted level of outside income that any elected official in New York can have. And that means a lot of things for the people of New York. When there's precious little disclosure, precious few consequences for violations, you're going to find huge opportunities for corruption, and at a minimum for conflicts of interest.

Both the larger situation and Bharara's clear disapproval of it raise the question of whether he can actually prove what many have long suspected — that Silver's "legal" work is really compensation for political favors.

What else is Silver known for?

Silver is the Democratic legislative in a heavily Democratic state, so most of his policy positions are fairly conventional liberal Democrat stuff. But relative to that context, Silver has often angered liberals — especially liberals based in New York — by selling out their agenda in favor of his larger and often obscure political project.

Back in 1995, for example, Silver was instrumental in bringing the death penalty back to New York. Former governor Mario Cuomo had fought a long and high-profile battle against the death penalty, only to be defeated in 1994 by Republican George Pataki. Democrats running the assembly could have kept up the fight against executions, but Silver instead got the authorizing legislation through.

A few years later in 1999, Silver was key to a legislative deal that included the repeal of New York City's commuter tax — formerly an important source of revenue to the city. It struck many as odd that an assemblyman from the Lower East Side of Manhattan would support legislation that deprived his city of money in order to deliver a tax cut to suburbanites. But then he did it again in 2008, killing then-mayor Michael Bloomberg's plan to levy a congestion tax on cars entering crowded Manhattan.

What's next?

Silver will naturally come under some pressure to resign, but it's unlikely that he will do so unless the pressure proves to be massive. All indications are that he enjoys the support of his caucus and that there's no major yearning among New York Assembly members for root-and-branch reform.

A different question is whether other New York political figures — ranging from Mayor Bill de Blasio to Senators Chuck Schumer and Kristen Gillibrand to the Governor and Attorney-General and of course including former New York Senator Hillary Clinton — will stand by Silver. Typically, higher-profile New York Democrats have allied themselves with Silver knowing that a good relationship with him is crucial to getting things done in state government. But a machine leader whose power appears to be on the verge of collapse can find himself rather suddenly abandoned by his friends.