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Cleanup of Albany’s ethical swamp should begin with Silver’s resignation

Sheldon Silver needs to go, at least as speaker of the State Assembly. The crimes he is charged with committing are deadly serious and strike at the heart of honorable public service.

As with anyone charged with a crime, Silver is entitled to a legal presumption of innocence, but that does not mean that he remains capable of fulfilling his role as the leader of one-half of the State Legislature. He is politically crippled. If he won’t resign, Democrats in the Assembly need to grow a spine and dump him.

Silver, who has been speaker almost 21 years, was charged on Thursday with illegally taking nearly $4 million through kickbacks and bribes since at least 2000. Specifically, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara accused Silver of enriching himself by using his office to benefit real estate developers and a physician who retained the services of two law firms with which he was connected.

Reports are that the case appears strong. For example, prosecutors on Thursday got a court order freezing $3.8 million of Silver’s money that they said he tried to hide in eight bank accounts. What legitimate reason could explain such furtive actions?

And still, the Assembly is crawling with Democratic sycophants who insist that all is well and since there’s no actual indictment yet, why worry? They lack either the nerve or the honor to do what needs to be done. Only two Democrats have called on Silver to step down, and Western New Yorkers can be proud that Buffalo Assemblyman Michael P. Kearns is one of them. The other is Assemblyman Charles Barnes of Brooklyn.

There is no possible way Silver can lead his chamber through the arduous process of negotiating a new state budget. Whatever credibility he may have had is shattered, at least for now. It’s hard to imagine that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos will want to take the political risk of being seen negotiating with him.

What is more, if Silver has any sense – the charges against him raise a serious question about that – his attention will be focused on saving his skin, not leading the Assembly in its most fundamental task – work that now surely holds little importance to him.

There is something else lawmakers can do – today, if they choose – to show New Yorkers that they are committed to honest governance. Silver’s sources of income have been a mystery for years because members are not required to disclose them. That is true, in large part, because Silver insisted upon that secrecy, and maybe New Yorkers now have a clue as to why.

But mandatory disclosure of outside sources of income would have headed off this disaster. No sensible elected official would, under those circumstances, have taken the kind of risks Silver is accused of running. And if for some foolish reason one did, he would almost certainly be found out before 15 years had passed.

Legislators can fix this matter as soon as they make up their minds that, after years of watching elected officials being led off to the courtroom, enough is enough.

In 2000, the year prosecutors say Silver may have begun padding his bank account by misusing his office, some members of the Assembly launched a coup against Silver. It was led by then-Assemblyman Michael Bragman, the chamber’s majority leader, and supported by many Western New York members. It is a shame for everyone, especially Silver, that it failed. He might have been saved from himself.

This is not the first time Silver’s ethics have come into question, but it needs to be the last. Shame on the lawmakers who are content to be led by this man.