After the Sheldon Silver Conviction

The federal corruption trial of former New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) has concluded with a conviction on all counts, despite his lawyers’ interesting argument that trading favors — in this case, funneling state grant money to a doctor’s clinic in exchange for highly lucrative asbestos-claim referrals to Silver’s law firm — is just the way everyone does politics in New York. It’s a huge win for Preet Bharara, who holds Rudy Giuliani’s old job as chief federal prosecutor in Manhattan — often seen as the only jobholder capable of cleaning up New York politics, because all the relevant actors within the state government itself are too compromised one way or another.

Ward heelers and frank rogues are common enough in Northeastern politics, but Silver always presented himself as something else, the voice of conscience speaking for every kind of progressive movement in New York. He had won the National Conference of State Legislatures’ “William M. Bulger Excellence in State Leadership Award,” delightfully named after the notorious boss of Massachusetts politics. Silver had the power, but he also had the pretensions.

As John Podhoretz writes in the New York Post, “That Silver was (to use a Yiddish term for thief) a goniff was a universally suspected fact even back in the late 1990s.” The Assembly boss was also for many years one of the fabled “three men in a room” in Albany — the governor and senate majority leader being the others — who decide important questions in privately cut deals. It happens that another of the three men in that room — Sen. Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Long Island) — is in the midst of his own trial on corruption charges.

So does this mean better days ahead for New York, a terribly misgoverned state? As one who has been writing about New York politics since way back, I can’t bring myself to be too optimistic.

I got interested in Silver originally because of his distinctive role as protector of New York’s trial lawyers and their various schemes for using liability law to keep up a steady flow of redistribution through the court system. Most of these schemes raise the cost of living and doing business in New York, such as the state’s unusual rule which used to expose car-lease providers to unlimited liability for crashes in leased cars, which drove up the price of a car lease for many New York consumers by $600. The state’s unique “scaffold law,” which makes business 100% liable for many on-the-job falls even if caused primarily by others’ negligence, has been estimated to drive up the cost of the Tappan Zee Bridge reconstruction alone by $100 million [corrected from Friday afternoon number – W.O.] For the past decade Silver has been associated with a large mass tort firm (not charged with wrongdoing in this case) which has benefited from many official programs and policies, from the liberal stance of the New York judiciary on asbestos litigation, to its role in Sept. 11 claims, to Medicaid recoupment actions.

With Silver gone, there might be movement on a few issues like this. But legal policy was only one of the many pots in which Silver kept his fingers, as Steven Malanga and Seth Barron detail in separate articles at City Journal. New York sluices huge amounts of money in its gigantic social services apparatus through non-profits, and friends of Sheldon were there to profit. Real estate development in New York is subject to famously convoluted restrictions, and huge sums are at stake in its rent control and rent stabilization system. Again and again, Silver was there to broker deals for his friends behind the scenes.

This particular wheeler-dealer may be off the scene for good, pending appeal, but it is the overreach of Empire State government that made his career possible. So long as New York pursues failed policies like rent control, it will open huge leeway for hidden favoritism. And then, sure as day, in will move the Sheldon Silver types.