The latest series of corruption scandals involving statewide elected officials has allegedly prompted New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to seek the ouster of long-time Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. As reported by the New York Post, Cuomo and his associates feel that Silver has allowed corruption in the statehouse to fester needlessly for two decades – creating a dysfunctional atmosphere in the process – and are even considering an upstate legislator as his replacement.
The governor is said to be especially smarting from US Attorney Preet Bharara’s contention that corruption in the NYS Assembly is “rampant” and “pervasive.” According to a Cuomo administration source, “Shelly’s been the master of gaming the corrupt system for 20 years. He’s made millions off of it, and the coalition that keeps him in power are the ones who feed off the corrupt system.”
In the latest example of the state government’s seemingly never ending cycle of political corruption, Assemblyman Eric Stevenson was recently arrested by federal authorities on the charge of accepting $22,000 in cash in exchange for enacting legislation to benefit a group of Russian businessmen. Stevenson, who has been described by some of his fellow legislators as clearly “sleazy” and “on the make,” had authored an Assembly bill that prohibited the establishment of new adult day care centers in The Bronx. According to Bharara, Stevenson’s bill was specifically engineered to ward off competition with two centers operated by the businessmen who paid him off.
As Silver has garnered a reputation as a boss who maintains tight control over the submission and passage of legislation in the State Assembly, informed observers have noted that Stevenson’s obviously underhanded bill was submitted with minimal examination by the speaker or his aides.
Just prior to the Stevenson bombshell, State Senator Malcolm Smith was arrested by federal authorities for allegedly bribing Republican county chairmen to give him their endorsement in a planned campaign for the New York City mayoralty on the Republican ticket. Along with Smith, prosecutors arrested three Republican and two Democratic elected officials on charges that the group paid or pledged bribes totaling more than $130,000 over the course of a number of secret meetings.
"The allegations illustrate the corruption of an elected representative's core function -- a legislator selling legislation," Bharara stated following the arrests. "And based on these allegations, it becomes more and more difficult to avoid the sad conclusion that political corruption in New York is indeed rampant and that a show-me-the-money culture in Albany is alive and well."
The Post reported that this past weekend, Governor Cuomo held special meetings with his highest-level aides and consulted his advisers about the need to formulate a comprehensive agenda focused on professional ethics in Albany. Some of the advisers strongly recommended to the governor that he move to push Silver out of office, and Cuomo is mulling over the idea.
In the opinion of informed sources, the governor has two options for dealing with the situation. On the one hand, he could hold a private discussion with Silver and insist that he either relinquish the speakership or resign from elected office completely. In the event, however, that Silver does not cooperate with such a demand, Cuomo would take advantage of his influence as a Democratic Party leader to coordinate a rebellion among legislators who were traditionally loyal to the speaker.
Democratic operatives have indicated that they are prepared to join forces with Cuomo’s effort. “If the governor threw his full weight behind ousting Silver, said it was necessary to clean up the state and help reform the Democratic Party, I think it would be possible,’’ commented a key party official who has been personally acquainted with Cuomo for years.
The legislator apparently being eyed as Silver’s likely replacement is Assemblyman Joseph Morelle of Rochester, who was selected as Democrat majority leader earlier this year with the approval of both the speaker and the governor. Since being elected in 1990, Morelle has made a name for himself as an official who is unyielding on strict ethical standards. Morelle would thus make an excellent choice for Speaker of the Assembly in the eyes of Governor Cuomo, as he would have the wherewithal to fight corruption in the state Legislature.
At the same time though, Morelle could expect to face intense opposition by the Assembly’s sizable bloc of New York City members, who would not be happy if the powerful position of Speaker is assumed by an upstate elected official. The likelihood of such a sentiment stems from the fact that every Assembly Speaker since the Democrats retook the Assembly in 1974 has been a Democrat from New York.
Since Silver became speaker in 1994, approximately a dozen members of the Assembly he oversees have been charged, sentenced or forced to resign due to corruption issues. In 2012, he was implicated in the sexual-harassment scandal surrounding Assemblyman Vito Lopez. Many also believe that – through his status as a lawyer – Silver acted as a “rainmaker” at two law firms.
However, in spite of the report originating in the New York Post (and also reported in the Daily News) that the governor seriously intends to push Silver out of his leadership role, at press time Cuomo issued a formal denial, stating that it is “solely” the legislature’s responsibility to “select” its leader. The governor emphasized that he would “never” attempt to impose any of his influence on this type of decision.
In his latest comments, Cuomo even went so far as to express some level of confidence in the speaker, claiming that progress has been “going well” with Silver and the state legislature during the recent budget negotiations, and that Silver “cannot” be held responsible for any of the recent corruption scandals.
The discussion of the possible removal of Silver from his influential position takes place in conjunction with Governor Cuomo’s plans to institute wide-ranging ethics reforms. “This is a rare moment for sweeping change,” Cuomo declared to his aides last weekend.
The transformation could include a Moreland Act Commission that would place influential lobbyists under oath to testify about the mechanics of the entrenched system of corruption. Additionally, it might entail a ban on the “cross endorsement” of candidates from one political party by another party.
Furthermore, Cuomo is considering a repeal of the “Wilson-Pakula” law, which allows candidates from one party to run on a different party’s ticket, and he is looking at the possibility of raising the salary of members of the state Legislature from $79,500 a year.