A prosecutor takes on New York state's culture of corruption
“CORRUPTION'S such an old song that we can sing along in harmony/ And nowhere is it stronger than inAlbany.” These lines from “Hamilton”, a musical about Alexander Hamilton now playing inNew York, got an especially loud laugh on January 22nd. That morning Sheldon Silver, the long-serving and powerful Speaker of theNew Yorkstate Assembly, was arrested by the FBI and indicted in a federal court on five corruption charges. Each charge could carry a sentence of 20 years.
According to the complaint, Mr Silver, a Democrat who has served in the Assembly for 38 years and has been Speaker for 21, received more than $6mfrom two law firms. This included $700,000 in“bribes and kickbacks” for inducing “real-estate developers with business before the state” to use a particular property-law firm; $5.3mfrom Weitz and Luxenberg, a law firm that handles personal-injury cases.
Among other things, he allegedly directed state grants to a doctor who then referred clients to an unsuspecting Weitz for asbestos lawsuits. Preet Bharara, the prosecutor, said that Mr Silver had amassed “a tremendous personal fortune—through the abuse of his political power”. He denies it all. The law firms are not accused of wrongdoing.
In 2011 Citizens Union, a watchdog, reported that legislators in Albanywere more likely to leave office under a cloud than in a coffin. Since 2000, 28 have left in disgrace and four have been indicted. The New York Post reported that Mr Silver regularly sent a $100 cheque to the campaign fund of a former district attorney. The story goes that if the cheque was cashed, Mr Silver would joke that he knew he was not in any trouble.
That cavalier attitude was hardly surprising, given the power he had. Most legislators were firmly under his thumb. He could advance or kill legislation with a nod. Sensible ideas like congestion pricing did not even make it to the Assembly floor. Power inAlbanyis entrenched in the hands of the governor, the Senate majority leader (usually a Republican) and the Assembly Speaker (usually a Democrat). These “three men in a room” often give their underlings just a few hours to review bills the size of encyclopedias; lawmakers then vote as they are told, for fear of being denied money for their districts.
The once-obedient rank-and-file of the Assembly at first appeared to stand by their leader, but then abandoned him. On January 27th they announced that a new Speaker would be appointed in February. The Assembly is now in chaos, while lawmakers elbow each other aside for his job. Meanwhile, important budget negotiations simply have to wait.
The affair has caused some to call for term limits for lawmakers. Such calls have been heard before, but most changes have been token. During his campaign for governor ofNew Yorkin 2010, Andrew Cuomo vowed to clean upAlbany. But his anti-corruption law and an ethics task-force did not go far enough. Later Mr Cuomo went one better, setting up the Moreland Commission to root out public corruption. But he disbanded it last March with, curiously enough, Mr Silver's enthusiastic backing.