As former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver goes to trial again on corruption charges, the public would do well to take note of the proceedings and judge for themselves whether the law is up to reining in the political corruption for which Albany is justly renowned.
It doesn’t look good.
Silver was convicted in 2015 for actions that anyone blessed with common sense would understand as corrupt. But the conviction was overturned. A federal appeals court said the law didn’t see a crime in Silver obtaining nearly $4 million in payments for actions that benefited others. It didn’t matter that he tacitly acknowledged his guilt when he apologized to the court for his actions.
He wasn’t the only one.
Former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos was nailed for different federal crimes only weeks later and also had his conviction overturned. A jury found Skelos guilty of bribery and extortion, among other crimes, for demanding that businesses relying on state funding pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to his son, Adam, for work he didn’t do. That's not a crime?
The undoing of these convictions traced back to a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court overturning the conviction of former Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell in 2014. Evidence showed that McDonnell and his wife accepted more than $175,000 worth of loans and gifts from a businessman seeking the state’s help in promoting a dietary supplement. It wasn’t enough.
But because there was no “official act,” such as voting for a bill or signing an order, the conviction was thrown out. It was a bad decision, one the created a loophole for Silver and Skelos to crawl through and avoid prison – so far, anyway.
It’s not just federal law. New York State statutes are weak enough that Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman has had trouble securing convictions for conduct that ought to be illegal. And who writes the laws? The politicians who benefit from their weaknesses.
Both need to be toughened. The question is whether state and federal lawmakers are interested in ensuring that corruption is punishable. In New York, at least, that seems doubtful.
Silver’s retrial began Monday. Skelos, too, is expected to be tried again. Prosecutors will have a more difficult time, given the restrictions of the Supreme Court ruling, but here’s the fundamental point: The evidence of what these men did hasn’t changed. No court challenged what the men did – which was unconscionable and surely ought to be illegal. The only question was whether the conduct included the kind of “official act” needed to trigger criminal culpability in the Supreme Court’s tolerant opinion.
Two conclusions flow from these issues. One is that legislators in Albany and Washington need to review their laws to ensure that corruption is actually illegal and can’t be sanitized by loopholes that invite self-dealing.
That’s been endemic in New York, where the pernicious influence of Tammany Hall clings like a virus. Corruption runs through this state’s veins and it is obvious that the only solution is to apply enough prosecutorial pressure that lawmakers see no recourse but to clean of their act.
The second, then, is that New Yorkers need leaders like Schneiderman and former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, whose office originally prosecuted Silver and Skelos, to continue their work. There is no substitute for their vigilance and determination to break the back of chronic and routine public corruption.
Law officers such as these have shown themselves to be crucial in the effort to rid New York of the criminality that pervades its government. They need to continue their work until Albany decides that honesty is the better policy.