Disgraced ex-Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver was sentenced to 12 years in prison for corruption Tuesday by a judge who said she hoped the idea of “living out his golden years in an orange jumpsuit” would keep other politicians on the “straight and narrow.”
“I hope the sentence I’m going to impose on you will make the next politician hesitate just long enough before taking a bribe or a kickback, for his better angels to take over,” Manhattan U.S. District Judge Valerie Caproni told the ashen-faced former Albany power broker.
The stiff sentence climaxed an astounding fall from the pinnacle of state government that Silver occupied for 20 years. He leaned forward frowning and did not react. But moments earlier, the 72-year-old Democrat followed his lawyers’ plea for leniency with an apology.
“Without question, I let down my family, I let down my colleagues, I let down my constituents,” he told the judge in his trademark baritone voice. “And I’m truly, truly sorry for that.”
Silver, who represented Manhattan’s Lower East Side, was convicted in December for aiding an asbestos doctor with grants to research mesothelioma and two developers with legislation in return for their help in funneling $4 million in law firm referral fees to him, as well as for money laundering.
The case — along with the conviction of former Senate leader Dean Skelos, who is to be sentenced May 12 — was a capstone of Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara’s crusade against Albany corruption, and prosecutors asked for more than 14 years in prison — the highest federal sentence ever for a New York legislator.
Caproni’s sentence fell short of that, but Bharara, who attended the sentencing in person, nonetheless expressed satisfaction afterward. “Today’s stiff sentence is a just and fitting end to Sheldon Silver’s long career of corruption,” Bharara said in a tweet.
Other officials concurred. “Justice was served,” said Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, whose office is the subject of a separate Bharara corruption probe.
Suffolk County First Deputy Police Commissioner John Barry, a lead investigator on the Silver case when he worked for Bharara, attended the sentencing. “It’s tremendous,” Barry said.
And good-government groups, citing a new Siena poll that said 97 percent of New Yorkers want Albany to act on ethics reform, said they hoped the Silver case would trigger action. “New Yorkers are furious,” said Susan Lerner, director of the watchdog group Common Cause, who attended the sentencing.
In addition to the prison term, Caproni ordered Silver to pay a $1.75 million fine and forfeit $5.3 million. She ordered him to report to prison by July 1. Silver’s lawyers said they planned to appeal and would try to keep him out of prison while the appeal is pending.
Silver was mobbed by a scrum of reporters outside the courthouse as he emerged. “I believe in the justice system and we will pursue all available remedies,” he said, before hopping into a yellow cab to escape the media.
In addition to his crimes, Silver was damaged after trial when Caproni ordered the release of sensational government allegations that had not come into evidence, claiming he had extramarital affairs with a lobbyist and a woman he helped get a state job.
Silver’s wife, Rosa, arrived 15 minutes late to the sentencing. Afterward, she spoke to her husband, but there were no tears or public embrace. She declined to comment, but Caproni said the affairs exemplified the kind of behavior that bred cynicism about government.
“Did a lobbyist have preferred access because she was a better lobbyist than competitors, or was it payback for a personal relationship?” the judge said. “Did that result in a thumb on the scale for her client? Those sorts of doubts end up corroding faith in government.”
Earlier, Silver lawyer Joel Cohen cited Silver’s good works on issues from tenant rights to the Sept. 11 and Sandy recoveries, and letters from dozens of constituents recalling kindnesses in an emotional plea for leniency sprinkled with Bible and Talmud quotes.
“It’s very important . . . in terms of the good that people do in the course of their life that emerge and help them when they’re in crunch time,” Cohen said.
But Caproni said it was hard for her to see Silver as an honest man led astray, citing the litany of lies he told to keep his schemes alive and his successful efforts to kill a state Moreland Commission set up to probe legislators’ outside income.
“Those were desperate acts by a politician who was trying to ensure that corruption in Albany could continue unchecked,” the judge said. “Those are not the actions of an honest man.”
Cohen also cited Silver’s poor health — he has prostate cancer, currently in remission — and said he realized the scandal would be the lead of his obituary. “He won’t weather this storm,” Cohen said. “He is already crushed. He has been devastated.”
An hour later, after he had secured Silver in a yellow cab that sped away on Centre Street, Cohen was asked how his client was feeling.
“Probably not so good,” he said. “Who would?”
With Maria Alvarez