Sheldon "Shelly" Silver (born February 13, 1944) is a former lawyer and Democratic Party politician from New York City, who rose to become the powerful Speaker of the New York State Assembly in 1994 until his arrest on federal corruption charges in 2015. After his resignation as Speaker, he was convicted of all charges, expelled from the Assembly, disbarred, fined $7 million and sentenced to 12 years in prison, although as of November 2016, his legal appeals were continuing.
An Orthodox Jew whose parents were Russian immigrants, Silver has lived all his life on Manhattan's Lower East Side. He graduated from the Rabbi Jacob Joseph High School on Henry Street, where he was captain of the basketball team. Silver graduated from Yeshiva University with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1965, and received his J.D. from Brooklyn Law School in 1968.
Silver practiced law with the firm of Schecter and Schwartz from 1968 until 1971, and then served as law secretary for New York City Civil Court Judge Francis N. Pecora from 1971 to 1976. In addition to Silver's duties in the New York State Assembly from 1977 to 2015, he was "of counsel" at Weitz & Luxenberg, one of New York State's largest personal injury litigation firms. For years, Weitz & Luxenberg insisted that Silver's ties with the firm were negligible. In 2007, the New York Post charged that Silver's refusal to disclose the details of his employment, or the income he received, raised suspicions of a conflict of interest. This income ultimately led to his arrest, resignation as Speaker, and prison sentence.
He was first elected to the Assembly in 1976 and rose to key committee leadership positions. He represented the Assembly District variously numbered as 62nd through 65th, comprising much of Lower Manhattan, notably the Financial District and the former World Trade Center site.
During the election years of his speakership, 1994–2014, Silver's district typically re-elected him with 80 to 90 percent of the vote. In 2008, he had his first Democratic primary challenge in over two decades, winning 69 percent, or 7,037 votes, to defeat his challengers, Paul Newell, who earned 22 percent (2,401 votes), and Luke Henry with 9 percent (891). Silver was re-elected on November 4 with 27,632 votes. His Republican challenger, Danniel Maio, received 7,387 votes.
Speaker of New York State Assembly
On February 11, 1994, after Saul Weprin died from a stroke, Silver became the Speaker of the New York State Assembly. He was re-elected 11 times.
As Speaker, Silver was instrumental in the reinstatement of the death penalty in New York State in 1995. It was eventually ruled unconstitutional by the New York Court of Appeals in 2004 (see People v. LaValle), as the law stipulated that if jurors were deadlocked between sentences of life without parole and execution, the court would sentence the defendant to life imprisonment with parole eligibility after serving 20 to 25 years. The Court ruled that in such a case, execution would seem unfairly preferable to the jury. New York's crime rate had dropped significantly in the decade since the law was passed, without seeing a single execution, and Silver let the law expire without much debate. In December 2005, after two New York City police officers were killed in as many months, Governor George Pataki called for another reinstatement of the death penalty. The New York Times quoted Silver's spokesman Charles Carrier as saying, "He no longer supports it because Assembly hearings have shown it is not the most effective way to improve public safety."
In 1997 and throughout his Assembly career, Silver was a key advocate of state-administered rent regulation of New York apartments. This complex and highly politicized system made the Speaker a central figure, continually courted by major participants in the real-estate industry.
In 1967, New York City leveled the 20-acre (80,000 m2) Seward Park Urban Renewal Area in Silver's neighborhood, and removed more than 1,800 low-income largely Hispanic families, with a promise that they could return to new low-income apartments when they were built. However, the site was kept undeveloped for decades afterward, as Silver and key allies strove to maintain the area's Jewish identity and opposed affordable housing, which would have brought more Hispanic and Chinese residents. Finally in 2012, the site was approved for the Essex Crossing mixed-use development project. Construction is scheduled to be completed in 2024, some 57 years after the site was cleared.
In 1999, Silver was instrumental in the repeal of New York City's commuter tax on non-resident earners. The repeal was a benefit to those commuting to work in the city from surrounding areas, but came at a substantial cost to New York City residents. Silver was criticized by city leaders for removing the tax, and although he suggested he would support reinstating it after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, he took no steps to do so.
Attempted "coup" and criticism
In 2000, Silver faced an attempted "coup" in the Assembly as members, primarily from Upstate New York and dissatisfied with his leadership style, tried to overthrow him as Speaker. Michael Bragman, the leader of the backlash, lost his position as majority leader. An editorial in The Buffalo News, written in response, criticized Silver for having too much power:
The problem—which also exists in the State Senate—can be boiled down to a single overarching issue: The Assembly speaker has too much power. He controls everything, from the legislation that can be voted on to how his normally docile members vote on it. He decides what the Assembly will accept in a state budget. He negotiates secretly with the other two leaders to hammer out important, expensive and far-reaching laws. And he ignores the wishes of less-exalted lawmakers.
Similar criticisms of New York State's "three men in a room" have been widespread for years.
New York congestion tolls
In July 2007, Silver was skeptical about Mayor Michael Bloomberg's New York congestion pricing program. When a meeting of the Democratic Assembly Conference indicated the proposal lacked sufficient support, Silver declined to schedule a vote on the measure, and it died. Although he stated that he "probably would have voted for the bill," a majority of his conference opposed the proposed plan. Proponents argued that it would reduce traffic congestion and vehicle emissions, lead to less-crowded streets, and raise much-needed funds for public transportation, while opponents objected to the notion of a new driving tax.
Mixed martial arts
Silver, in his role as Speaker, was widely blamed for the delay in passing A04146A through the Assembly to legalize professional mixed martial arts in New York State. Since 2011, Silver and New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman aligned with the UNITE HERE labor union in opposition to the MMA promoters, and prevented the bill from reaching the floor for a vote. New York finally became the last of the 50 states to allow the sport in early 2016, after Silver's expulsion from the Assembly.
Failure to investigate sexual harassment
A former top aide to Silver, chief counsel J. Michael Boxley, was accused of raping two legislative aides while he was working for the Speaker, and Boxley eventually pleaded guilty to sexual misconduct. Silver was sued for failing to investigate the accusations properly and for tolerating a culture of sexual harassment in the Assembly. In 2006, Silver and the Assembly leadership agreed to pay $500,000 to settle the lawsuit. Similar settlements in 2012 and 2015 resulted from multiple harassment charges against former Assemblyman Vito Lopez, and Silver was accused of not acting forcefully to prevent Lopez’s behavior. Silver apologized for not reporting cases to the Assembly's Ethics Committee as required, and said that since then he "put in place new policies to ensure these incidents are dealt with swiftly and transparently."
Prosecution and conviction
Charges and resignation as Assembly Speaker
On January 7, 2015, Silver was elected Speaker for the 11th time, with almost unanimous support from the Democratic majority despite a federal probe into his outside income.
On January 22, Silver was arrested on federal corruption charges. The federal inquiry, which followed the state's abruptly disbanded Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption, focused on large payments that Silver received for years from a law firm that specialized in seeking reductions of New York City real-estate taxes. Investigators led by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara charged that Silver did not properly disclose the payments from the firm, Goldberg & Iryami, on his annual financial disclosure filings with the state. The firm's major client was the state’s single-largest political donor, while the founding partner Jay Goldberg was Silver's former Assembly counsel, and partner Dara Iryami agreed to testify under immunity.
Similar charges involved millions of dollars in asbestos lawsuit-related referral fees that Silver received from the law firm Weitz & Luxenberg, which announced that it was placing him on leave. One of his longtime associates, Brian Meara, provided key information to investigators in exchange for a non-prosecution agreement, as did the physician involved in the asbestos cases, Robert Taub.
On January 30, after a week of intense political pressure and dwindling support, Silver submitted his resignation as Speaker, effective February 2, while retaining his position as Assembly Member and vowing to fight the charges against him. On February 3, the Assembly elected Carl Heastie as the new Speaker.
On April 25, 2015, Silver was indicted on additional charges of making illegal investments through private vehicles, netting a profit of $750,000. He pleaded not guilty to those charges three days later, on April 28.
Trial, conviction, sentencing, and appeal
Silver's trial lasted for much of November 2015. On November 30, 2015, a unanimous jury found Silver guilty on all seven counts, triggering automatic expulsion from the Assembly. In advance of his sentencing, he was disbarred by the New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division, which handles judicial and attorney misconduct, on March 29, 2016.
On May 3, 2016, federal judge Valerie E. Caproni of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York sentenced Silver to 12 years in jail, and ordered him to pay $5.3 million in ill-gotten gains and $1.75 million in additional fines. Silver received two prison terms: 12 years for six criminal counts against him and 10 years on the seventh, to run concurrently. As of November 2016, he remained free on bail, pending an appeal based on the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in McDonnell v. United States that reversed the corruption conviction of a former Virginia Governor.
Silver and his wife Rosa, a former special needs schoolteacher, have four adult children. According to court papers unsealed during the sentencing phase of his trial, Silver was alleged to have had two extra-marital affairs, both of which were connected to his Albany position.
By the time he became Speaker of the Assembly, he was known to play basketball with other high-ranking officials, including former Governor Mario Cuomo and former Comptroller Alan G. Hevesi.
Two weeks after Silver's criminal conviction, his son-in-law Marcello Trebitsch was sentenced to prison for a separate multimillion-dollar crime, also prosecuted by Bharara's office.