Powerful New York politician arrested on bribery charges
NEW YORK (AP) -- New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who bent governors to his will for more than 20 years as one of the state's most powerful and canny politicians, was arrested Thursday on charges of taking millions in payoffs and kickbacks.
The 70-year-old Democrat was arrested by the FBI on federal conspiracy and bribery charges that carry up to 100 years in prison and could cost him his political seat. He was released on $200,000 bail.
U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said Silver - a lawyer by training - lined up jobs at two firms and then accepted large sums of money in exchange for using his "titanic" power to do political favors. A lot of the money was disguised as "referral fees," Bharara said.
"I'm confident that after a full hearing and due process I'll be vindicated on the charges," said Silver, who seemed unfazed in court, even pausing on his way out to sign a sketch artist's rendering of the scene. He did not enter a plea.
The arrest sent shock waves through New York's Capitol and came just a day after Silver shared the stage with Gov. Andrew Cuomo during his State of the State address. The governor had no immediate comment.
Silver is one of Albany's most storied political figures, a consummate backroom operator with the power to single-handedly decide the fate of legislation.
Along with the Senate majority leader and the governor, he plays a major role in creating state budgets, laws and policies in a system long criticized in Albany as "three men in a room." He controls, for example, which lawmakers sit on which committees and decides whether a bill gets a vote.
In a measure of his clout, he helped persuade Cuomo last spring to disband a state anti-corruption commission that was investigating Silver's financial dealings and those of his colleagues. Silver had fought the commission's subpoenas and refused to provide information about his outside legal work.
Despite his outsized influence, he is pretty much an unknown outside New York State. Even in Albany, he is one of the most private and least-understood figures, sometimes called "the Sphinx."
Silver's outside income has long been a subject of discussion and controversy. But Bharara said New Yorkers could stop wondering: Silver made more than $6 million in outside income since 2002 from two law firms, much of it illegal.
"Speaker Silver never did any legal work," Bharara said. "He simply sat back and collected millions of dollars by cashing in on his public office and political influence."
Assembly Majority Leader Joe Morelle said Silver still has the backing of an "overwhelming" number of the chamber's Democrats, and they are not seeking his resignation as speaker.
"We believe he can carry out his duties as speaker," Morelle said. "We're going to stand with him. ... We have faith in the speaker."
At one law firm specializing in personal injury and asbestos removal, Weitz & Luxenberg, Silver was accused of receiving millions in so-called referral fees in exchange for lining up state grants for a doctor's research, according to prosecutors.
At another firm specializing in real estate tax law, Silver collected big fees for using his political clout to steer powerful developers to the firm as clients, authorities said.
A graduate of Brooklyn Law School, Silver was first elected to the Assembly in 1976, representing a district on Manhattan's Lower East Side, where he was born and still lives.
Silver has gone toe-to-toe with five New York governors - from Mario Cuomo to his son Andrew Cuomo - since early 1994, when he was selected speaker.
He has championed liberal causes in the Legislature, where he has used his position as a powerbroker to support teachers, trial lawyers and civil service unions.
Klepper reported from Albany. Associated Press writer Larry Neumeister in New York and Michael Virtanen in Albany contributed to this report.