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Conviction of Silver makes crystal clear the need for ethics reforms in Albany

Now, will Albany get serious? Will the richly deserved felony convictions of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver open enough eyes that state legislators and other government officials will understand their obligation to the voters whose trust put them in office?

It is a telling fact about New York State government that even with Silver’s conviction on all seven counts – and even though his former Senate counterpart, Dean Skelos, is now also on trial – serious action remains merely a possibility and, even then, not all that likely. So entrenched is the culture of corruption in Albany that criminality passes for normal – even patriotic, according to one of Silver’s attorneys, Steven F. Molo.

“They look at conduct which is legal,” Molo told the jury in his opening statement, “conduct which is normal, conduct which allows government to function consistent with the way that our founding fathers of the state of New York wanted it to function, and they say this is illegal.”

Here’s what has passed for legal in Albany that federal prosecutors and a jury say is not: bribe taking, extortion and money laundering.

A jury found Silver guilty on Monday during its third day of difficult deliberations. With it, Silver was expelled from the New York State Assembly, where he was first elected nearly 40 years ago.

The trial began Nov. 2, about 10 months after the office of U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara filed charges against him, shaking the Albany power structure to its crooked core. His defense team plans to ask U.S. District Judge Valerie E. Caproni to set aside the verdict and, assuming that fails, appeals are all but inevitable.

If the verdict withstands review, though, Silver faces up to 20 years in prison on each of six of the charges. He has been conclusively shown to have abused his position and the trust of his constituents for self-gain. He is today felony proof of the need for far-reaching reform that makes a serious effort at winning back the broken trust of New Yorkers.

Of course, Albany has touted “reforms” in the past, but they were rarely more than token measures meant to silence the critics and provide cover to incumbents. State leaders liked being able to milk their positions for money and power.

Now, though, Albany must confront the issues that have made this state one of the most corrupt in the nation. The goal has to be to discourage corruption in the first place, in part by making it easier to detect and to prosecute. It begins with money.

First, the state needs to close what is known as the LLC loophole, which allows large, often secret donations to political campaigns, circumventing even the lax laws that New York has on its books. It’s a travesty of democracy, whose purpose can be little other than to trade favors.

The Legislature also needs to get more serious about outside sources of income for lawmakers and other state officials. Either all sources of income should have to be disclosed, or the Legislature should simply ban outside work. Both were central to Silver’s criminality. As a lawyer and Assembly speaker, he arranged sleazy transactions that benefitted him personally, while resisting calls for detailed disclosure of his outside income.

Surely, even the lawyers in the Legislature can now see how that combination of influences poisons the well of public confidence. If lawyers believe they cannot ethically disclose the names of their clients and how much money they are making from them, then they don’t have to serve on the Legislature. Democracy will survive.

But more than that is necessary, too. Part of the problem of Albany – and an issue that laid the groundwork for Silver’s downfall – is the amount of power concentrated in the hands of the leader of each legislative chamber. They control staff for lawmakers. They decide which bills will come to a floor vote, guaranteeing their passage. They decide which will be buried. That kind of unrestricted authority opens the way to unethical behavior for those so inclined.

That needs to change. It is important for legislative leaders to have enough authority to prevent the kind of dysfunction that has overtaken Congress, but too much causes its own problems. It’s one of the reasons the Brennan Center for Justice labeled the New York State Legislature as the country’s most dysfunctional.

The Legislature is well rid of Silver, but now it needs to acknowledge the dirty laundry he leaves behind. Legislators can fix these problems or continue to watch as Bharara continues to pick them off.