New York and its Democratic Gov. Cuomo start this year's legislative session facing the latest taint on its already tarnished reputation for government ethics with the arrest of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who bent state government to his will for more than 20 years as one of the state's most powerful and canny politicians.
The 70-year-old Democrat was taken into custody Thursday by the FBI on federal charges that he took nearly $4 million in payoffs and kickbacks, crimes that carry up to 100 years in prison and could cost him his political seat. He was released on $200,000 bond and surrendered his passport.
Cuomo lamented the added "negativity" associated with state government as good government groups renewed calls for him to do more and critics accused him of flagging on past anti-corruption initiatives.
U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said Silver, a lawyer by training, lined up jobs at two firms and then accepted large sums of money over more than a decade in exchange for using his "titanic" power to do political favors. The money was disguised as "referral fees," Bharara said.
Silver, who seemed unfazed in court, did not enter a plea.
"I'm confident that after a full hearing and due process I'll be vindicated on the charges," said Silver, who even paused on his way out of court to sign a sketch artist's rendering of the scene.
The arrest sent shock waves through New York's Capitol and came just a day after Silver shared the stage with Cuomo during his State of the State address, as Cuomo joked that he, Silver and the Senate majority leader were the "three amigos" of state government.
At a meeting Thursday with the Daily News editorial board, Cuomo said of Silver's arrest: "Obviously it's bad for the speaker, but it's also a bad reflection on government, and it adds to the negativity."
Silver is one of Albany's most storied political figures, a consummate backroom operator with the power to single-handedly decide the fate of legislation.
Along with the Senate majority leader and the governor, he plays a major role in creating state budgets, laws and policies in a system long criticized in Albany as "three men in a room." He controls, for example, which lawmakers sit on which committees and decides whether a bill gets a vote.
In a measure of his clout, he helped persuade Cuomo last spring to disband a state anti-corruption commission that was investigating Silver's financial dealings and those of his colleagues.
Despite his outsized influence, he is pretty much an unknown outside New York state. Even in Albany, he is one of the most private and least-understood figures, sometimes called "the Sphinx."
Silver's wealth has long been a subject of discussion and controversy. But Bharara said New Yorkers could stop wondering.
"Speaker Silver never did any legal work," the federal prosecutor said. "He simply sat back and collected millions of dollars by cashing in on his public office and political influence."
Silver is the sixth New York legislative leader to face prosecution in the past six years.
Bharara said the charges against Silver make clear that "the show-me-the-money culture of Albany has been perpetuated and promoted at the very top of the political food chain."
Assembly Majority Leader Joe Morelle said Silver still has the backing of an overwhelming number of the chamber's Democrats and they are not seeking his resignation as speaker.
"We believe he can carry out his duties as speaker," Morelle said. "We're going to stand with him. ... We have faith in the speaker."
At one law firm specializing in personal injury and asbestos removal, Weitz & Luxenberg, Silver collected millions of dollars in so-called referral fees for lining up state grants for a doctor's research, according to prosecutors.
At a firm specializing in real estate tax law, Silver received big fees for using his political clout to steer powerful developers to the firm as clients, authorities said.
A graduate of Brooklyn Law School, Silver was first elected to the Assembly in 1976, representing a district on Manhattan's Lower East Side, where he was born and still lives.
Silver has gone toe-to-toe with five New York governors — from Mario Cuomo to his son Andrew Cuomo — since early 1994, when he was selected speaker.
He has championed liberal causes in the Legislature, using his position as a powerbroker to support teachers, trial lawyers and civil service unions.