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Silver presents New York with its Watergate moment

It may have been the most poignant photo to dominate the front page of The Buffalo News in months.

The camera caught Sheldon Silver, the once all-powerful speaker of the Assembly, maneuvering through a gantlet of photographers on Monday outside Manhattan’s federal courthouse. Minutes earlier, a jury declared the Lower East Side Democrat guilty of corruption charges. Now he was emerging as a beaten man, and the ashen look on his face showed it.

The scene marked a stark contrast from the days when “Shelly” ruled the Assembly like an emperor. And no one challenged the emperor. It was the way things worked in Albany.

And just by coincidence, former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, a Long Island Republican, is also standing trial this week for his own corruption charges. Who would have guessed it?

Now, New Yorkers say they’re disgusted that Silver becomes the 32nd state legislator forced out of office for wrongdoing since 2000. But not much real reform ever ensues.

Legislators convicted of graft and corruption? Ho-hum. Turn to the sports pages.

Still, good government groups like Dick Dadey’s Citizens Union are sounding more than their usual outrage. They say this is different; that Silver’s conviction raises the corruption issue to a whole new level.

“Sheldon Silver’s activity was deliberate, long-ranging and cunning,” Dadey said a few days ago, adding the speaker’s transgressions represented far more than the “stupidity” of backbenchers abusing their per-diem allowance.

Silver’s case represented a calculated effort to monetize the powers of his office, Dadey said. And his argument that he was “entitled” to exploit those powers to the tune of $4 million worth of personal enrichment should fire up the “enraged-o-meter” even more.

“There was this sense of entitlement, that they knew better, that they should be honored and respected,” he said of Silver’s defense arguments.

The reform measures that inevitably follow such cases will surface again during the upcoming 2016 legislative session. They always do before limping off to the reform bills graveyard, but it’s logical to ask whether reform will face a similar fate following such a high-level conviction.

In the past the convictions and front-page photos of handcuffed legislators never made a difference. For years, people like Dadey said Silver and other lawyers should decide whether they wanted to serve in the Legislature and declare any potential for conflict of interest, or make lots of money.

But the speaker said “no,” and that was the end of that.

Still, the Senate last term passed legislation denying pension benefits to people like Silver convicted of public corruption. Some concerns over the bill’s technicalities stalled it in the Assembly, but it was almost as if Silver’s mere presence in the chamber – after resigning the top spot – hovered over the effort.

Dadey wonders what it will take to obtain significant reform. After 31 legislators before Silver stuck it to taxpayers, he asks if New Yorkers really want change. “I hope Silver is not just one more, but the beginning of the end,” he said. “The only hope is for New Yorkers to take back their government.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has called for sweeping reforms in the past, but has pulled back recently in recognition of the Legislature’s reticence to go further. In fairness, sometimes officials like Cuomo realize you get what you can and come back to fight another day. That fails to fly with the Dadeys of the world.

“People want change,” he said. “But when the governor of the state of New York says, ‘No, we can’t do any more,’ that’s not acceptable.”

It’s Dadey’s role around the Capitol to make such statements and raise such questions. With the Legislature’s two most powerful figures accused of using their positions to line their own pockets, he asks: If not now, when?

“I believe, truly, that this is our Watergate moment,” he said. “And if we don’t use this, it’s a wasted opportunity.”