Former New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver was convicted Monday for financial corruption, including charges of honest services fraud, extortion, and money laundering. Silver, who represented most of the Lower East Side and Lower Manhattan, was elected to the Assembly forty years ago and held the speakership for over twenty years.
Silver’s power was “hard to overstate,” as the New York Times recently put it: “Serving as one of Albany’s ‘three men in a room,’ he made important decisions alongside the governor and the Senate majority leader. He could ease the way for or block almost any piece of legislation. As leader of the majority in the Assembly, he could also dole out perks to members: committee chairmanships, large office staffs and prized programs in their districts.”
When a powerful figure, especially a public figure, falls from his pinnacle due to purposeful wrongdoing, it goes without saying that his legacy is likely tarnished for the foreseeable future. What’s more interesting is how it affects past readings of him. With that in mind, it’s worth looking back at a long profile of Silver published by New York magazine in 2008.
Geoffrey Gray — a contributor for New York, which is a partner in Bedford + Bowery — wrote the piece when Silver was at his political zenith and also attracting adversaries including primary challengers, Mayor Bloomberg, and the New York Times editorial board.
Some moments in Gray’s profile now screech with irony in light of the crimes Silver committed. He says his father “taught us the value of a dollar.” And among his rules of success are “Never negotiate against yourself” and “You have to be able to walk away.” A former aide tells Gray: “Really, all the low talk, it’s just a way to buy time, so he can figure out the best possible deal.”
The profile brushed tantalizingly close against what would lead to the federal investigation against Silver:
Silver also has a side gig working for Weitz & Luxenberg, one of the biggest personal-injury firms in the state. Silver’s role there is so controversial that judges (they’ve been barking for pay raises) are refusing to hear cases from lawyers at the firm (one recently called him a “slug” because he’s been trying to tie judicial raises to raises for his legislators—Silver’s their union leader, after all). Silver won’t disclose how much he makes for the firm because state ethics laws are so weak they don’t require him to make them public. He also isn’t interested in overhauling these ethics requirements; that wouldn’t be too popular among his members. “I don’t represent corporations,” he says. “I don’t represent anybody who in any way has an impact on anything we do legislatively. They are individuals who, through some unfortunate circumstance, are injured …”
As it turned out, Silver collected lucrative fees from Weitz & Luxenberg in return for sending mesothelioma patients their way via Columbia University researcher Dr. Robert N. Taub, who in turn received two grants from the State Health Department totaling $500,000—which Silver arranged.
I contacted Gray, who reread his seven-year-old article, which can sometimes be a cruel exercise for a writer. Looking back on it, he sees premonitions of Silver’s doom.
“Shelly was born out of crisis,” Gray told me. “He developed a strange non-leader leadership style characterized by an extremely cautionary mode. He was control-freakish, especially after 2000 when he was nearly ousted from the Speakership. After that he worked extremely hard to prevent any errant thing from happening. He kept his distance from people while also trying to control as much as he could. He refused to have his own chief counsel which made him his own lawyer, and he even drove himself to places rather than hire a driver.”
What shocked Gray about the indictments was that he considered Silver “the master of caution.” Silver’s corruption seems to have come from the very thing that he thought protected him: his insularity.
“The Shelly Silver that I interviewed back then was more an old style, old flavor individualistic guy who lived so apart from mainstream culture. He lived in the Orthodox Jewish enclave and in his own cloister in the state assembly. To me he was this sort of relic of boss politics in New York. He didn’t care about social media, he didn’t care about getting trashed in the Post, he was somebody who ultimately just cared about relationships,” Gray said. Gray doubts Silver even bothered to read his profile of him.
It was those relationships that Silver kept very close to his chest that contributed to his downfall. It’s not too far a distance between doing a favor and making illegal transactions, especially in a state assembly where defense lawyers for indicted lawmakers often argue that such behavior is “business as usual.”
“What was not weird was Shelly’s reaction to his indictment, which is so ingrained in his character,” Gray said. “He didn’t really seem to care in a way. It speaks to the heart of Shelly’s worldview that he lives in another world. Whether it’s mainstream press or it’s the courts, it seemed like he was so far alone and removed from those systems.”
Now Silver finds himself deep inside that system, and the longtime survivor of New York politics probably won’t find a way out.