Former New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver on May...

Former New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver on May 11, 2018. Credit: Craig Ruttle

ALBANY — Former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who was one of the three most powerful leaders in state government for more than 20 years until he was convicted in one of New York’s biggest corruption scandals, died in prison Monday. Silver was 77

Silver had been treated for cancer at the Otisville Correctional Facility and in the Federal Medical Center, Devens in Massachusetts, where he recently had back surgery. Former Assemb. Harvey Weisenberg, a longtime friend of Silver, said Silver died in the Massachusetts hospital.

"I served 25 years with this man and I knew his heart," Weisenberg told Newsday. "Here was a man who had a death sentence after spending more than half his lifetime in public service …. He made a mistake and he paid his price."

Silver was a giant figure in New York politics through the tenures of five governors. But he was convicted in 2018 of money laundering, extortion and fraud for using his powerful post to illegally collect fees of nearly $4 million in schemes that involved securing state funds for a cancer research and real estate deals. At the time of his death, he was serving a 6 1/2 year prison sentence.

Silver had been perhaps New York’s most polarizing political figure while he was speaker from 1994 through 2015, the second-longest tenure in state history.

For his critics, he was the epitome of autocratic control of a legislative conference and secretive dealing in Albany’s "three-men-in-a-room" negotiations of the budget and major legislation. He also was blamed for a major role in spending beyond the state’s means and in producing late state budgets.

Silver was known as "the Sphinx" in Albany. Squat and soft-spoken, his baritone rarely revealed his frustration or anger during months of late-budget negotiations. He would regularly wear down Republican opposition by holding out to get more funding for social service programs, organized labor and education.

Former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver enters a vehicle outside a...

Former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver enters a vehicle outside a federal courthouse in Manhattan after being sentenced in Manhattan on July 20, 2020. Credit: Charles Eckert

But he also drew praise from liberal Democrats for his progressive legislative wins, including record school aid increases, expanding pre-Kindergarten, and civil rights legislation. He scored progressive victories even during the 12 years he faced off against Republican Gov. George Pataki and a solid Republican majority in the Senate.

"It’s a Shakespearean tragedy," said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group and veteran of Albany’s political scene. "He was a smart, capable, ambitious elected official who ruined his career as a result of a sense of entitlement."

Horner said there may someday be other legislative leaders as powerful as Silver was, "but they don’t come along very often."

Former Gov. David Paterson said Silver moved the state to adopt progressive issues in his fights behind the scenes with Pataki and the Republican-controlled Senate.

"Speaker Silver was a champion for issues in his district and others in other regions of the state," Paterson told Newsday. "My wife and I would like to offer our most sincere condolences to his family and the very strong staff that supported him."

Pataki, Silver’s chief political nemesis for 12 years, called it a "sad day" but a "reminder that integrity matters."

"For all our many disagreements and battles, it's a sad day and a stark reminder that integrity in public service matters," Pataki said in a statement. "When I look back, I always try to think about the good, the accomplishments we achieved together and there were many — but there could have and should have been more. It's a shame that his career in public service ended in such a tragic way, but it is a lesson that is important today."

Silver was born in 1944 and raised in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. He was the son of Russian immigrants and graduated from Yeshiva University in 1965 and then from Brooklyn Law School. He worked for years for the law firm of Weitz & Luxenberg, which handled personal injury cases. He was married to Rosa, a former schoolteacher, for more than 50 years and they had four children and several grandchildren.

He was first elected to the Assembly in 1977 and was elected Speaker by his peers in 1994. In that role, he served with five governors, from Mario Cuomo to Andrew M. Cuomo.

While an enigma to the public and many outside his conference, Assembly members have long talked about the comfort and support Silver provided them in difficult political and personal setbacks.

Members often said Silver "protected his flock," leading to long terms for Democratic incumbents as he increased the Democrats’ majority over Republicans.

Silver’s lower Manhattan district included the World Trade Center when the Twin Towers were hit on Sept. 11, 2001. He said Ground Zero was visible from his apartment, and he worked with Pataki and the Senate to pour funding into the renewal of lower Manhattan after the attacks.

"In a lot of ways, Shelly was like a mythic, tragic hero," said Assemb. Charles Lavine (D-Glen Cove). "He had done some great things for the state of New York, especially funding for education and affordable housing. Beyond that, he was a true leader in the battle to rebuild New York City after Sept. 11."

"I was dumbfounded when he was arrested," Lavine told Newsday. "I still can’t understand why someone with so much talent, insight, and sophistication as Shelly would have gotten himself into that kind of trouble. It was a sad fall from grace."

As Silver neared the record for the longest serving legislative leader, he was convicted in 2015 on the federal corruption charges and was sentenced to 12 years in prison. In 2017, his conviction was vacated because of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on a separate case and a new trial was ordered.

A year later, Silver was convicted and sentenced to 6 1/2 years in prison. His subsequent appeal succeeded in overturning part of that conviction, but the court upheld much of the corruption charge and a money laundering count.

In 2020, federal Judge Valerie E. Caproni said Silver was guilty of "corruption, pure and simple" as she sentenced him to prison.

Silver pleaded at sentencing, "Your honor, I don’t want to die in prison."

With Yancey Roy

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