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Silver reversal exposes flaws in anti-corruption system, critics say

The 2015 corruption conviction of former New York

The 2015 corruption conviction of former New York State Assembly speaker Sheldon Silver has been overturned by a federal appeals court on July 13, 2017. Credit: Getty Images North America / Kevin Hagen

ALBANY — The reversal of Sheldon Silver’s fraud and extortion conviction exposes major flaws in state and federal anti-corruption laws that can allow actions the public would consider obviously wrong to go unpunished, critics and lawmakers said Thursday.

“Right now, if I drop a bag of cash at your door but we never talk about it, there may be no felony committed,” said Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach), a former federal prosecutor turned elected official. He said the reversal reinforces voters’ cynicism: “They think, ‘Of course you can get away with it.’ ”

Kaminsky and others urged legislative action to put some teeth in New York’s ethics laws after a federal appeals court vacated the conviction of Silver — who led the state Assembly for 20 years before being convicted in 2015 — because jury instructions didn’t comport with recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions that effectively made it harder to convict elected officials on bribery charges. Others even are calling for backing a referendum on the ballot this fall for a state constitutional convention.

Silver had been accused of pocketing $4 million in legal referral fees for steering state grants to Columbia University cancer researcher and directing Glenwood Management, a prominent Long Island real estate company, to a certain tax law firm that paid him alleged kickbacks. Silver was sentenced to 12 years in prison, though has been free pending an appeal.

The appeals court, while acknowledging the “distaste” of Silver’s actions, said the jury was improperly instructed on what constituted official acts of the one-time most powerful Democrat in state politics.

The ruling, critics charged, signals almost anything goes when it comes to lawmakers’ self-dealing.

“If his actions weren’t illegal, it’s hard to imagine what is,” said Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb (R-Canandaigua). “This is exactly why the public has absolutely no trust in elected officials or state government.”

Blair Horner, a longtime watchdog with the New York Public Interest Research Group, said Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and state legislators “already have thrown in the towel” when it comes to fighting corruption. He said lawmakers have taken no steps to rein in their outside income or empower independent prosecutors to go after corruption — even in the wake of the conviction of Silver and ex-Long Island Sen. Dean Skelos (who is making an appeal similar to Silver’s) and a bid-rigging scandal touching on Cuomo’s formerly closest aide.

“In Albany-land, people think it’s OK to use your public office for private gain,” Horner said.

Dick Dadey of Citizens Union said the Silver reversal reinforces the need for voters to approve a constitutional convention (a referendum that is on the statewide ballot this fall) to create fairer elections and tougher anti-corruption laws.

Cuomo’s office and Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan (R-East Northport) didn’t comment. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx), who replaced Silver, said, “As I have said we must respect the judicial process. It is a pillar of our democracy. Today’s decision is a part of that process.”

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