Does The Arrest Of One Of NY’s Most Powerful Dems Spell Trouble For Cuomo?

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The longtime New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D) turned himself into the FBI Thursday morning in Lower Manhattan on federal corruption charges. A five-count criminal complaint alleged Silver, who has held the speakership for two decades, used the power of that office to obtain $4 million in kickbacks and bribes disguised as income.

The complaint against Silver grew out of the ashes of the Moreland Commission, a panel New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) set up in summer 2013 that was tasked with investigating public corruption. When Cuomo suddenly disbanded the commission in March 2014, eight months before it was to wrap up its work, federal investigators picked up the pieces. The investigators also reportedly began looking into Cuomo’s shutting down of the commission.

The complaint against Silver noted Cuomo announced that he had agreed to end the Moreland Commission as part of budget negotiations, in which Silver and his staff played a key role. A three-month-long New York Times investigation last year found that the governor’s office had repeatedly hamstrung the commission’s investigations into his political allies and associates.

So does Silver’s arrest signal turbulence ahead for Cuomo?

Longtime Democratic strategist Hank Shienkopf doesn’t think so. He told TPM by phone Thursday that he saw nothing in the complaint that has legal implications for the governor.

The complaint against Silver actually gave Cuomo substantial political leverage, according to Sheinkopf. He said the assembly would likely enact the majority of the governor’s agenda, including criminal justice, education and tax reform, because all those issues are popular with the public.

“It’s hard for them to say no [to Cuomo’s agenda] in the first place,” said Sheinkopf, who’s based in New York City. “With this indictment, it’s even harder for them to do anything that the public will react to negatively.”

Dick Dadey, the executive director of Citizens Union, a New York-based good-government group, noted that the criminal complaint against Silver contained both good and bad news for Cuomo.

The complaint against Silver showed that the governor did shut down the Moreland Commission far too abruptly, Dadey told TPM. But he said the speaker’s arrest also showed that an ethics law Cuomo proposed and pushed through the state legislature in 2011 was working.

Cuomo’s ethics reform required lawmakers to disclose more information about their outside income and law firm clients that do business with the state, but the New York Times described that measure as “so narrowly drawn as to be meaningless.” The newspaper also pointed out that the Moreland Commission recommended that requirement be broadened, but no action was ultimately taken.

It’s worth noting that the complaint against Silver states that a federal grand jury investigation into the speaker’s outside income began in June 2013, shortly before Cuomo established the commission.

In a press conference Thursday afternoon, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said “lax outside income laws” were to blame for Silver never disclosing the illicit payments. He also noted that the deal cut between Cuomo and the legislature to shut down the Moreland Commission was a “great relief” to Silver.

“The show-me-the-money culture of Albany has been perpetuated at the very top of the political food chain,” Bharara said.

Cuomo’s press office did not immediately return a request for comment from TPM. Cuomo’s reps have previously declined to answer questions about Bharara’s probe into his administration’s handling of the commission.

The New York Daily News reported in August that the governor also lawyered up after Bharara began that investigation.

After Cuomo first disbanded the Moreland Commission, a spokesperson told the New York Times that the panel “was designed and formed to be a short-term, temporary commission to recommend and spur legislative action, which it did successfully.”

Read the complaint against Silver below:

US v. Sheldon Silver Complaint

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Catherine Thompson is a senior editor for Talking Points Memo in New York City. She came to the site in 2013 and reported on national affairs. Previously, she worked as a research assistant to investigative reporter Wayne Barrett. She can be reached at catherine@talkingpointsmemo.com.
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