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Sheldon Silver's Conviction Sparks Hope For Ethics in Albany

By  Jeff Mays and Irene Plagianos | December 1, 2015 5:19pm 

 Sheldon Silver's corruption trial has some hoping that a new day is dawning in Albany.
Sheldon Silver's corruption trial has some hoping that a new day is dawning in Albany.
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Getty Images/Daniel Barry

CIVIC CENTER — The corruption trial that rocked New York State from Albany to Lower Manhattan has some hoping a new day is dawning in the state capitol, where dozens of legislators have been convicted of corruption and abusing their office for personal gain over the last several years.

"This could be the watershed moment that we have been looking for," said Dick Dadey, executive director of good government group Citizens Union. "New Yorkers have learned firsthand how dirty the dealing is in Albany."

State Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and his son Adam are also currently on trial for allegedly extorting money from companies by promising to push favorable legislation.

Former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s attorneys repeatedly argued during a five-week trial that what Silver did was legal, and that no one in Albany has clean hands.

“It’s impossible, absolutely impossible, for a member of the Assembly to do his or her job and to go out, make laws, deal with people, do the job that a person in the Assembly does and not have some form of conflict of interest," said Silver's lead attorney Steven Molo.

Prosecutors said Silver's way of doing business should not be the way business is done in Albany.

“To taint your fellow legislators and the democratic process with your own corruption, and say that that’s politics as usual, it is not even close,” said prosecutor Andrew Goldstein. “Not by a mile.”

Juror Arleen Phillips was unsure if prosecutors were correct when they said ex- Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver had abused his office by receiving millions of dollars in kickbacks from companies with business before the state.

The 53-year-old from Mount Vernon initially asked to be removed from the case because she said fellow jurors were pressuring her and admitted she thought Silver seemed "humble and unassuming."

But when she saw that $700,000 in referral fees that Silver received from the law firms of developers pushing for favorable legislation was hidden on his financial disclosure form, she changed her mind and voted to convict Silver.

Despite his demeanor, Phillips felt Silver "may have this other side that he feels as speaker of the house he was entitled to do the things that he did.”

Silver said he will be vindicated upon appeal.

Politicians who had supported Silver in the past have since abandoned him. Mayor Bill de Blasio called Silver an "man of integrity" after his arrest but changed his tune Monday.

“Today’s verdict is a reminder that the public good must be the only priority for elected officials," the mayor said. "The people of New York expect and deserve better."

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has also been criticized for his efforts, or lack thereof, at pushing ethics reform, said "it is time for the Legislature to take seriously the need for reform. There will be zero tolerance for the violation of the public trust in New York."

Dadey said some basic changes need to happen in Albany to prevent further corruption.

Lawmakers' ability to earn outside income should be greatly curtailed and stipends should be eliminated. Salaries for elected officials should be increased, said Dadey. The New York State Joint Commission on Public Ethics needs more power.

Silver's successor, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said he was "deeply saddened" by the verdict in a statement.

"We will continue to work to root out corruption and demand more of elected officials when it comes to ethical conduct," Heastie said.

Phillips also sees the conviction as a call for change.

“I think any assemblyman now considering what happened today will....take a step back and look to make sure there are no conflicts of interest," she said.