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As Sheldon Silver meets his fate in a Manhattan courtroom, Albany searches its soul

By Tom Precious

News Albany Bureau Chief

ALBANY – In a Manhattan courtroom, Sheldon Silver, a force who dominated state government for parts of three decades, met his fate Tuesday, sentenced to 12 years in a federal prison for using his position to enrich himself.

One hundred and fifty miles to the north, on the State Capitol’s third floor, life went on.

In the Assembly Chamber in which Silver served from 1977 until his expulsion in November, his former colleagues were not publicly weeping. At the same time, the former Assembly speaker was being sentenced, lawmakers introduced guests invited onto the floor, officially seated the assemblywoman who will represent Silver’s former Lower Manhattan district and dashed out for snacks in a nearby room just a few steps from his old Capitol suite.

It is a building where corruption cases have been so routine over the last 12 years that people seem to have well-rehearsed talking points for a day like Tuesday.

“It’s a feeling of sorrow. That’s what I feel. It tarnishes the institution, but the institution will go on,” said Assemblyman Peter J. Abbate Jr., D-Brooklyn.

Next week, when former Senate Majority Leader Dean G. Skelos, R-Rockville Centre, is sentenced in his separate corruption case, it will be the Senate’s doors where reporters will descend seeking reaction.

Silver, 72, lost in his bid to convince U.S. District Judge Valerie E. Caproni to keep him from prison or to keep his bankroll intact. Silver, addressing the judge, said he let down his family, colleagues and constituents, adding, “And I’m truly, truly sorry for that.”

The judge was not convinced. Besides the 12-year sentence, which she ordered he begin serving July 1, Silver has to pay a $1.75 million fine, forfeit $5.3 million in “crime proceeds” and, to boot, pay a $700 “special assessment fee.”

Of his scheme to use the influence of his office to drive millions of dollars to his own bank account, for which he was convicted on seven counts in November, the judge said: “Mr. Silver, those are not the actions of an honest person.”

It was quite a day.

In New York City, without a public schedule, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, whose administration was hit with a subpoena last week on the Buffalo Billion investigation from the same federal prosecutor who got the Silver conviction, issued a brief written statement saying that the Silver sentence sends “a simple message that officials who abuse the public’s trust will be held accountable.”

In the Binghamton area, former Senate Deputy Majority Leader Thomas W. Libous, a Republican ousted from office in 2015 on a conviction of lying to FBI investigators, died Tuesday afternoon in a hospice after a battle with cancer.

Meanwhile, Assembly members tracked Silver’s sentencing appearance via Twitter, reaction to the fate of their former leader varied.

“No, no, no,” Assemblyman Herman D. Farrell Jr., D-Manhattan, said when asked about Silver.

Assembly Majority Leader Joseph D. Morelle, a Rochester-area Democrat who was first put in his leadership post by Silver, called it a “sad day,” especially for veteran lawmakers who rose through the ranks with Silver.

It was Morelle who best articulated what some lawmakers say is the “cumulative effect” of Silver’s sentencing and next week’s sentencing of Skelos. “I think the world has changed in so many ways here and will never be the same again,” he said. “And if it hasn’t, it should make everyone be very cautious about what they do and make sure they carry out their professional and public responsibilities in the appropriate way.”

Outside the Capitol office where Silver had conducted countless deals between 1994 and his 2015 departure, his successor, Assembly Speaker Carl E. Heastie, D-Bronx, said the Assembly now has “to go on with our life.”

“We just want to make sure we get the public back the confidence and the government they deserve,” Heastie said.

There is no agreement about how to do that. An hour before Silver’s sentencing, government watchdog groups sought to use the occasion to press for long-stalled changes to state ethics and campaign finance laws, such as restricting contributions from those with business before the state and imposing new restrictions on outside incomes of state lawmakers.

Lawmakers are not moved, so far, to those arguments. “What’s there to do? The laws are on the books,” Abbate said, adding that Silver “got caught breaking the law. … They were on the books, and he violated those laws and he got caught.”

State Sen. Patrick M. Gallivan, R-Elma, whose career included stints in the State Police and as Erie County sheriff, agreed. “My background is law enforcement. I’ve seen many people violate the laws. We’ve got laws in place. Can you legislate morality?” he said.

Beyond greed or political power-seeking, Albany’s corruption cases over the last decade can now be counted in volumes. Michael Johnston, professor emeritus of political science at Colgate University, said Albany’s control of the Senate by Republicans and the Assembly by Democrats has produced only the appearance of party competition. “It’s been the two parties staying in their own bailiwicks and not be able to, or inclined, to check on each other on a daily basis,” Johnston said.

Johnston believes that Cuomo himself had an opportunity to influence anti-corruption cases as well as anyone in Albany but that “he couldn’t or wouldn’t” a couple of years ago when he closed down a special investigative commission before it concluded its work. Now, the sentencings of Silver and Skelos will put pressure on lawmakers to react legislatively, Johnston said, and there are measures that can help, from tightening conflict-of-interest laws to some campaign finance changes to limit what he calls some of the “legal corruption” of money influencing the outcome of policy decisions. But, he cautioned, “political money is like water getting in your basement. If you stop it over there, it’s going to get over here.”

Preet Bharara, the Manhattan-based U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York who targeted Silver and Skelos and is now looking at Cuomo’s office in the expanding Buffalo Billion probe, had asked the judge to sentence Silver to at least 14 years in prison. After the 12-year sentence, Bharara issued a brief response: “Today’s stiff sentence is a just and fitting end to Sheldon Silver’s long career of corruption.”

Pension forfeiture – as in the loss of state pensions for officials convicted of wrongdoing in their government jobs – seems to be the one area that Republicans and Democrats can agree is likely to be addressed before this year’s State Legislature session ends in June. “That’s not good enough,” said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group, who said there is a need for a sweeping package of ethics and campaign law changes.

None of the ideas floating about Tuesday are new, and some have been proposed and killed in Albany for years, if not decades.

The small but influential Conservative Party offered its priority: term limits. In a “Dear legislator” letter to lawmakers, the state party’s chairman, Michael R. Long, said Tuesday that he has had “enough of the make-believe commissions, studies and suggestions by good government people.” Long said that all the tweaking of ethics and campaign finance laws over the years has not stopped Albany’s corruption problems. “We urge you to take a bold stand and restore the faith of the citizens by enacting term limits now,” Long wrote of an idea that would require a change in the State Constitution.

The calls for action came a few hours after release of a poll by Siena Research Institute showing that 93 percent of New Yorkers believe that corruption in Albany is a serious problem.

“Skelos and Silver will get people’s attention, but what happens next is critical,” said Johnston, of Colgate. “If they both go to jail, that gets attention, and maybe there’s a moment there.”

Back in the Assembly Chamber, while Silver was in a courtroom awaiting the judge’s sentencing, his replacement was at the rostrum welcoming three new Assembly members who won seats in special elections April 19, including Silver’s replacement, Alice Cancel, a Democrat.

Heastie told the new lawmakers, “You need to fulfill the obligations of the people you have been elected to serve.”