Sheldon Silver’s sentence was stiff, as it should have been. Twelve years in prison, a $1.75 million fine, and an order to forfeit more than $5 million in ill-gotten gains for the disgraced former speaker of the State Assembly.
Even more striking than the terms laid down Tuesday by U.S. District Judge Valerie Caproni was her tone in delivering them. Caproni sternly called Silver one of the most corrupt elected officials in New York’s inglorious history because of his high rank, the length of his behavior and those millions in illicit fees. The sentencing kicked off an extraordinary month, even by New York’s abysmal standards. Former State Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, convicted with his son on eight federal counts of bribery, extortion and conspiracy, will be sentenced next week, and John Sampson, another former Senate leader convicted on federal corruption charges, will be sentenced May 19.
It’s our Mayday call, and it’s a moment we must seize. The public is fed up. Some 97 percent of New Yorkers say it’s important that the State Legislature and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo pass ethics reforms in this session, according to a Siena College poll released Tuesday. More than three-quarters say pensions should be stripped from any state employee convicted of public corruption.
State lawmakers facing re-election in November should think twice about those poll numbers before leaving Albany without making dramatic changes.
It’s not as if corruption probes ended with these three convictions. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s campaign is being investigated for funneling contributions to State Senate candidates upstate as part of an effort to regain Democratic control of the body. U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara — whose office prosecuted Silver and Skelos — is probing a former key aide to Cuomo who took consulting fees from firms with business before the state while running the governor’s 2014 re-election campaign.
Legal or not, these things stink. They exacerbate the public’s sense that any law can be circumvented, and that every defense begins by saying this is how the system works. Silver tried that, and Caproni rejected it, saying she hoped her sentence would lead another politician’s “better angels to take over, or if there are no angels, maybe his fear of living out his golden years in an orange jumpsuit will keep them on the straight and narrow.”
Perhaps. But what’s also needed are new laws, clear and direct, outlined in screaming neon lights and accompanied by stiff penalties.
Start with pension stripping: Public officials convicted of job-related felonies should lose their pensions. Period. Add a ban or limit on outside income, the root of so much corruption. A ban is better, but Cuomo’s proposal to limit lawmakers to no more than 15 percent of their public salary, essentially the cap for members of Congress, is good, too. The State Senate murmurs that a cap or ban is unconstitutional, but has yet to show why.
Bharara wants to destroy Albany’s “cauldron of corruption,” and his fight has led to more than a dozen state lawmakers pleading guilty or being convicted. But that war cannot depend on the personality or priorities of one person. Bharara, in a tweet, called Tuesday’s sentence “a just and fitting end” for Silver. What New York needs now is a just and fitting end to corruption. — The editorial board