The charges in the federal criminal complaint against Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver are just shocking. There is "probable cause," the complaint says, to believe that through bribes, kickbacks, fraud, extortion, and conspiracy, Silver "used the power and influence of his official position to obtain for himself millions of dollars masked as legitimate income earned by Silver as a private lawyer."
Silver is innocent until proved guilty. But even if he did what the criminal complaint lays out, almost as shocking is this: In the end, a court may find that a good bit of what Silver did was legal. And it seems like it may be hard to prove that he's guilty of some of the other charges.
Silver, one of the state's most powerful Democrats, was arrested last week, and US Attorney Preet Bharara held a dramatic press conference to announce the five-count criminal complaint and lay out its details. Ominously, he said there'll be more news - presumably fingering more politicians - where that came from.
Among other things, the criminal complaint says that:
• Silver steered two real estate developers who had "significant business before the State of New York" to a law firm specializing in real estate law. He did no legal work for the developers but got a portion of the legal fees - "bribes and kickbacks" that were "masked as legitimate income" - and didn't disclose that income on financial disclosure reports.
• He persuaded a doctor specializing in research and treatment of mesothelioma to refer his patients to a personal-injury law firm for possible suits related to asbestos exposure. Silver got payments from the firm even though he did no work for any of the clients. And Silver secured state grants for the doctor for his research center.
Some news reports have highlighted the fact that Silver got a cut of clients' legal fees, even though he did no work on the cases. But paying lawyers for referring clients is common practice among law firms, and it's not at all unusual for firms to hire lawyers with high public profiles to get those referrals.
And while it may be easy to prove that he failed to report some of his income, that's not as serious as bribes and conspiracy. Linking his actions as a state legislator to payments from the doctor and, indirectly, from developers may be a challenge. And politicians have become expert in keeping those links blurred.
Most of us humble New Yorkers may think stuff like this is unethical, but this is how work gets done in the State of New York.
For the past several years, New York's state government has been rocked by one scandal after another. Governor Cuomo added to the problem, big time, last year when he shut down the Moreland Commission, which he had established to investigate corruption in state government. Now we have the news that - ah, yes - the US Attorney's office believes Silver helped bring about that shutdown to protect himself.
Here's what the complaint says about that: "When, in or about 2013, the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption (the "Moreland Commission") began to investigate outside income earned by Sheldon Silver, the defendant, and other State legislators, Silver took legal action and other steps to prevent the disclosure of such information to the Moreland Commission."
True to form, the governor leapt up on top of this latest Albany-cesspool news and began spinning it into gold. The federal criminal complaint, he said, proves that he was right to shut down the Moreland Commission. "If anything," he told the Daily News, "it vindicates what happened."
It just makes me sick.
There's been a lot of focus lately on the growing disparity of wealth in this country, and the great chasm between the hyper-hyper wealthy and everybody else. Taking root beside that, and abetted by it, is another chasm: between the hyper-powerful and everybody else.
Regardless of the outcome, Shelly Silver's story is a perfect example. And I see little reason to hope for change.