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Silver conviction stuns Albany

The New York State Capitol is seen March

The New York State Capitol is seen March 16, 2008 in Albany, New York. Credit: Getty Images / Chris Hondros

ALBANY -- Longtime Albany lawmakers and observers were shocked Monday by the conviction of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, one of Albany's most powerful leaders for 20 years, on all counts in his corruption trial.

"It's shocking and the institutional impact is massive," said Gerald Benjamin, distinguished professor of political science at the State University at New Paltz.

"A political earthquake has hit Albany," said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group, which has pushed for a special session this year to enact tougher ethics laws. "Hopefully, this will be the tipping point."

The State Legislature so far has balked at measures to ban outside income for state legislators, adopt term limits or restrict the extraordinary power of legislative leaders, which are among the issues at the heart of the conviction of Silver and the ongoing corruption trial of former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre).

Susan Lerner of Common Cause-NY said Silver's conviction shows Albany operates in a murky world all its own.

"Albany insiders have lost touch with reality," she said. "The jury didn't buy the explanation that self-dealing and back-scratching are just 'business as usual.' "

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo issued a statement Monday evening praising the verdict.

"Today, justice was served," the governor said. "Corruption was discovered, investigated, and prosecuted, and the jury has spoken. With the allegations proven, it is time for the Legislature to take seriously the need for reform. There will be zero tolerance for the violation of the public trust in New York."

The climate is changing in Albany, a Long Island political analyst said.

"I think this seals the end of the era of the strong political leader who had tremendous sway over the [legislative] members," said Lawrence Levy, executive dean of Hofstra University's Center for Suburban Studies. "The members are going to want more shared control over everything from spending to staff appointments."

Maurice Carroll, a political scientist at Quinnipiac University who spent decades as a New York political reporter, said Silver's conviction on charges that made $4 million in two separate corrupt schemes is on a level with the political downfalls of former President Richard Nixon and former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, who resigned in 2008 amid a prostitution scandal. "It will shake up Albany," Carroll said.

"I think some of his own members were shocked at how much money he was making," said Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb (R-Canandaigua). "This is the clearest message that these ways are over."

Republican Assemb. Steve McLaughlin of Schaghticoke said Silver's indictment was "an indictment of the culture of Albany and the three-men-in-a-room culture," referring to the private negotiations of all major issues by the governor and the Senate and Assembly leaders. "Maybe this is the call you need to open things up."

Assemb. Charles Barron (D-Brooklyn) said Silver's arrest already had prodded overdue change in Albany.

"The tone is different, the leadership is more democratic and open to criticism and open to negotiating," Barron said. "For what he did for decades, justice has been served."

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