Ear Hustle

NY Assembly Leader Sheldon Silver’s Arrest Puts NY Governor Andrew Cuomo In A Tough Spot


On Wednesday, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo unleashed a lengthy and aspirational oration laying out an ambitious social agenda for his second term. In 84 minutes, he devoted only about 40 seconds to the issue of cleaning up Albany.

The next morning, Sheldon Silver, the powerful speaker of the New York State Assembly who sat next to Mr. Cuomo before his speech, was in handcuffs, accused by federal prosecutors of abusing his powerful post to obtain $4 million in payoffs.

Now, Mr. Silver’s arrest is threatening to upend the order that Mr. Cuomo spent his first term working to restore in the capital, which had been a punch line for its unruliness and abundance of ethical sins.

The new scandal also revives scrutiny of what many perceived as the governor’s Achilles’ heel: His widely faulted decision in 2014 to shut down the Moreland Commission, an anticorruption panel he had created to root out wrongdoing and bring reform to state government. Indeed, the 35-page complaint against Mr. Silver, a Manhattan Democrat, was peppered with references to the panel, its work and its disbandment.

“This is going to be fireworks and marching bands around the notion that its work was not done,” said David S. Birdsell, dean of the Baruch College School of Public Affairs. “There was plenty more to discover, and it just didn’t happen.”

Responding to Mr. Silver’s arrest, Mr. Cuomo argued to a newspaper editorial board that the charges actually vindicated his decision to shut down the commission. Federal prosecutors, he reasoned, were better suited to conduct a criminal investigation of a legislator than his own panel had been.

Still, what was supposed to be a triumphant week for Mr. Cuomo, seizing the clean slate offered by a new term, had by Friday been flipped on its head.

The State of the State address he offered on Wednesday had been summarily forgotten, replaced by familiar lamentations about yet another corruption scandal. Mr. Cuomo has kept a low profile since Mr. Silver’s arrest. His office declined to comment on Friday.

“To the degree that he’s supposed to bring Albany into a better era, this becomes a blemish,” Lee M. Miringoff, the director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion, said.

Mr. Silver’s arrest comes at a busy time in the governmental calendar, as Mr. Cuomo and leaders of the Legislature are about to embark upon negotiations for the next state budget, which is due by April 1.

Until this week, Mr. Silver’s camp had been eager to stand up to Mr. Cuomo during the budget talks this year, recognizing that Mr. Cuomo had been bruised by a rocky re-election bid and had antagonized lawmakers by refusing to agree to raise their pay. In the campaign, Mr. Cuomo had boasted of his four straight on-time budgets; there was talk of breaking that streak.

Though Mr. Cuomo and Mr. Silver are both Democrats, they have differing priorities on a number of issues, including education policy. The governor is pushing for a more rigorous teacher evaluation system and an expansion of charter schools; Mr. Silver, an ally of the state’s teachers’ unions, will now be in a weaker position to fight him.

At the same time, the prospect of disarray in the Assembly — where life under a speaker other than Mr. Silver, who has held his post since 1994, is a distant memory — could make it difficult for Mr. Cuomo to build on his carefully honed reputation as a governor who gets things done.

Hank Sheinkopf, a veteran Democratic political consultant, said Albany would probably muddle through, for a simple reason: It is not in legislators’ interest to disrupt the relative harmony of the past few years.

“Everyone wants to deliver an on-time budget, because it looks good for them,” he said.

The case against Mr. Silver, who is accused of disguising his payoffs as legitimate income from outside legal work, was brought by Preet Bharara, the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York. It was also Mr. Bharara whose office took over the Moreland Commission’s files after it was shut down by Mr. Cuomo — and who asked whether the governor had “bargained away” corruption investigations as part of a deal with lawmakers.

Before its disbandment, the panel had been investigating legislators’ outside income, but lawmakers sued to block that inquiry on constitutional grounds.

Mr. Cuomo, in a meeting on Thursday with the editorial board of The Daily News, argued that while the Moreland Commission had been stalled in court, Mr. Bharara was able to build a case and prosecute Mr. Silver.

“If anything, it vindicates what happened,” Mr. Cuomo said.

In addition to pursuing the commission’s unfinished cases, Mr. Bharara also started a criminal investigation into its closing.

A former commission member said on Friday that Mr. Silver, should he choose to do so, could potentially shed light on that subject, as well as on other Albany malfeasance.

“Silver knows where all the bodies are buried, and what went into the deal to end Moreland,” the commission member said, insisting on anonymity to avoid damaging professional relationships. “The speaker’s arrest intensifies everything.”

Mr. Silver’s arrest also prompted demands for further action on cleaning up Albany. Government watchdog groups called for new ethics measures, and a Democratic assemblyman from Buffalo, Michael P. Kearns, sent Mr. Cuomo a letter asking him to re-establish the commission.

Barbara Bartoletti, legislative director for the League of Women Voters of New York State, who had been a special adviser to the commission, said she hoped Mr. Silver’s arrest would finally prompt more substantive improvements to ethics laws.

“The eternal optimist in me says this event may be the tipping point needed and they will finally do something on ethics reform,” she said.

Mr. Cuomo himself revisited the idea of ethics reform in the days before Mr. Silver’s arrest, proposing a commission that would study the pay of lawmakers and add restrictions to the amount of outside income they can earn.

Now, Mr. Cuomo is also confronting one consequence of his unapologetically pragmatic approach to Albany relationships, in which success was often achieved not by trying to depose his rivals for power in the capital, but from beating them at their own game.

That style was on display at his State of the State address, when Mr. Cuomo jokingly described himself, Mr. Silver and the State Senate majority leader as Albany’s “three amigos,” a twist on the “three men in a room” who together make many of the most important decisions in the capital.

But in a speech on Friday at New York Law School, Mr. Bharara took direct aim at that triarchy, questioning the concentration of power, and the opacity that masks its use.

“It’s weird to me, a little bit, that officials and writers joke about it, good-naturedly, as if they’re talking nostalgically about an old sitcom” or a comic movie, he said. In a less than subtle reference to Mr. Cuomo, he offered the film “Three Amigos” as an example.

“Is that really how government should be run?” Mr. Bharara asked. “Is that really the way to run a state of almost 20 million people? When did 20 million New Yorkers agree to be ruled like a triumvirate in Roman times?”

Source: NY Times

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