The Corner

Law & the Courts

NY Corruption Trials Expose Myth of ‘The Little Guy’

New York state, perhaps the nation’s epicenter for “pay for play” corruption by elected officials, has just witnessed the conviction of former Democratc Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.  Once one of the three most powerful men in state government, Silver was finally brought down by evidence he had accepted $4 million in disguised legal fees in exchange for legislative favors. His Republican counterpart in the State Senate, Dean Skelos, is undergoing a trial on similar charges that is now in its third week. Both cases were brought not by state officials but by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara acting for the federal government.

The ease with which New York officials engage in corruption is notorious. Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo declared that “justice was done” after Silver’s oonviction. But then he said he won[t call as special session of the legislature to address ethics reforms such as banning some forms of outside income for legislators.

“At one point, I don’t care how strong the law is, if a person’s going to break the law, the person’s going to break the law,” Cuomo said.

Fair enough, which is exactly why the central premise of New York’s bipartisan liberalism – that a huge and  intrusive government is needed to stick up for the “little guy” – has to be challenged and exposed as basically fraudulent.  It is sham to conceal the behind-the-scenes machinations of special interests that use both parties for their own purposes.

Silver’s lawyers claimed in court that the federal prosecutors pursuing their client were trying to criminalize the kinds of activity in which state legislators routinely engaged.

“They look at conduct which is legal,” Stephen Molo told the jury in a breathtaking opening statement, “conduct which is normal, conduct which allows government to function consistent with the way that our founding fathers of the State of New York wanted it to function, and they say this is illegal.”

Molo claimed Speaker Silver had always sided with tenants to ensure strong rent-control laws (in reality, they lead to shortages and economic distortions) and had performed years of “good work”, citing his opposition to congestion pricing on Manhattan streets because of his “principled” belief it would hurt “the little guy.”

Molo’s justifications were given short shrift by federal prosecutor Howard Master, who used his summation to note that the “core principle” of politics in Americas should be that it is “governed by the people and for the people.”

Silver “governed using a different model,” Master claimed.

“It wasn’t by the people or for the people,” he continued. “It was by Sheldon Silver for Sheldon Silver.”

The jury agreed, finding Silver guilty on all seven corruption charges brought against him. 

Now the challenge will be if New York voters pay attention to Silver’s conviction  – and the likely  conviction of Senator Skelos later this month – to finally demand both a higher standard from their elected officials and a realization that government favors that primarily benefit the well-connected usually often come surrounded by a gauzy package that promises it will help the disadvantaed.  No one is counting on that happening, but the sight of two of the state’s most powerful men in the dock should last least clear away some illusions.

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