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Assembly Democrats ‘overwhelmingly’ back Silver

Hours after the arrest of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver on corruption charges, Assembly Democrats huddled in private for about 90 minutes and then left Albany saying they are sticking behind their longtime leader – for now.

Only one lawmaker who sits with the Democratic conference, a new member from Brooklyn, spoke in favor of ousting Silver, according to Assembly sources said.

Assembly Majority Leader Joseph Morelle, a Rochester Democrat, gathered with other Assembly lions like Ways and Means Chairman Herman D. Farrell of Manhattan to emphasize that they consider Silver to be their leader and innocent until proven guilty. Morrelle did not comment directly on the charges facing the speaker and said he had not read the criminal complaint. But he made it clear Assembly business will continue as usual, Silver is expected in town next week to preside, and the Democratic conference still considers him its leader.

“The members are overwhelmingly, in the conversation we just had, continuing to support him,” Morelle said. “There is a presumption of innocence, and we have every confidence that the speaker is going to continue to fill the role with distinction.”

He said there was no suggestion from within the conference that Silver step aside.

Some Assembly Democrats said there is a precedent for a Speaker serving while in legal trouble. Mel Miller, a Brooklyn Democrat, served after he was indicted and left when convicted on a corruption charge in 1991; his conviction was later overturned.

“I’ve seen a previous Speaker indicted and there’s no indictment here. It’s a complaint under federal law, which can include hearsay evidence. It’s not the most compelling of documents," Assemblyman Robin Schimminger, a Kenmore Democrat, said after leaving the closed-door Democratic conference this afternoon at the Capitol.

“Everyone is presumed innocent. In this situation, we have important work before the state government. We have a budget pending. We have a session pending and we should be about the work of the people," he added.

Even if there were sentiment to replace Silver, there is no heir apparent. Silver for years has had a leadership style that not only rewards backers but appears to benefit from a Democratic conference that can often be divided along any series of geographic, gender, racial, philosophical and other lines.

One early bit of insider chatter is the possibility of a “caretaker” type Speaker, such as the Assembly saw with Saul Weprin, the short-time Speaker after Miller was convicted. Silver took over from him. One possibility: Brooklyn’s longtime Assemblyman Joseph Lentol.

Lentol was not in Albany Thursday. He called The Buffalo News in the afternoon to say he was in a New York City hospital with a kidney stone condition.

Two Democrats so far – neither of them Silver backers in his recent re-election – called for his departure: Assemblymen Michael Kearns, a Buffalo Democrat who does not sit with the Democratic conference, and Brooklyn freshman lawmaker Charles Barron.

“I think he should step down and resign,” Barron told reporters. “It is a distraction, and if any part of these charges are true, it is a shame.”

Republicans, meanwhile, were lining up calling for Silver’s resignation. Minority Leader Brian Kolb of Canandaigua said it was not necessary for him to resign as a member, but that he should as speaker.

“The role of speaker is so important to the operation of the institution and to do the business of the people of the State of New York – that’s the role I think he has to step down from,’’ he said.

Kearns said he will also ask Gov. Andrew Cuomo to re-instate the anti-corruption Moreland Commission, the panel he shut down last year as part of a deal with legislators. Evidence uncovered by that panel is believed to have led to the arrest of Silver today by the FBI. Federal prosecutors in the U.S. Attorneys Office in Manhattan have zeroed in on allegedly income Silver failed to report from a real estate law firm.

Silver today declared his innocence.

Assemblywoman Jane Corwin, a Clarence Republican, said Silver is innocent until proven guilty, but that he should step down from his job because of the upcoming budget talks that will involve him, Cuomo and the head of the Senate in Albany’s three-men-in-a-room system of government.

Corwin called on Assembly Democrats to immediately elect a new Speaker who is “worth of the distinction and honor’’ of leading the 150-member chamber.

Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, last year’s GOP gubernatorial candidate who made Silver an issue throughout his race against Cuomo, said Silver arrest “must be the launching point for sweeping change in Albany.’’

Astorino said the matter raises “serious questions” about Cuomo’s Moreland Commission and whether it knew about the allegations involving Silver at the time it was shut down by the governor. “If they were, and if that information was not properly referred to law enforcement authorities, this case will grow,’’ Astorino said.

Astorino said the latest scandal to hit Albany shows the need for term limits in New York.