Barrett: Silver’s career a tapestry of corruption

The sphinxlike former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who presented no defense at trial just as he answered no questions for decades, was convicted this week a few feet from where his public career started 45 years ago. He is now gone from our lives, his Assembly seat as vacant as his eyes, completing his shuffle from Manhattan State Supreme Court, where he began as a law secretary in 1971, to the federal courthouse on Foley Square, where 12 of his peers finally got a chance to judge seven of his felonies.

In the dying days of Tammany Hall, Silver laid claim to this patronage law secretary perch, a job routinely parceled out to machine Democratic clubs like the one he had joined on the Lower East Side. Five years later, he was the choice of the last Tammany county leader, Frank Rossetti, to replace Assemblyman Anthony DiFalco, whose father, Surrogate Judge Sam DiFalco, was already under indictment and would soon be indicted again, charged with fixing cases for Anthony’s law firm. A creature of the most corrupt clubhouse culture in city history, Silver had lost a 1974 City Council race against reformer Miriam Friedlander, only to be installed in DiFalco’s suddenly unoccupied seat two years later.

His biography reads like a prelude to an indictment.

Never facing a serious challenge over his nearly 39 years in the Assembly, Silver was elevated to a leadership post in 1987, when new Speaker Mel Miller made him chairman of the Codes Committee. Five years later, Miller would surrender his seat when he was convicted of defrauding his legal clients. Miller’s conviction was overturned years later on a technicality and he became a potent Albany lobbyist, feasting on his ties to Silver’s Assembly. He has been doing television stints as a Silver apologist since the January arrest.

Silver became speaker in 1994, when Saul Weprin died in office after only two years as Miller’s replacement. Weprin, the only speaker to give up his law practice, is also the only one in nearly three decades to serve without facing criminal charges tied to his practice.

Silver weathered scandals in recent years when he repeatedly used state funds to buy the silence of women who made sexual harassment and assault claims against Assembly leaders, and virtually no one in his Democratic conference, including its many champions of feminist causes, would publicly fault him.

His lucrative arrangement with the personal injury princes at Weitz & Luxenberg, whose name partners were leaders of the New York State Trial Lawyers Association, was fodder for editorial boards, which regularly highlighted the brazen conflict of interest. Silver was so indifferent that he named Arthur Luxenberg to a panel that screened top judges. His law firm bonanza was simultaneously deplored and celebrated – with former Republican Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno telling a prospective client that he was inspired by his counterpart’s trial lawyer paychecks to jumpstart his own consulting firm, leading to his own indictment. Silver’s defense argued at trial that everything he did was par for the course. The truth is he seeded the course.

Silver’s top aide and close friend Patricia Lynch left him to immediately form a lobbying firm that became a cash-guzzling turnstile to his Assembly office. One of Lynch’s clients, Cablevision, was fined $75,000 for not reporting gifts to Silver, including visits to its Madison Square Garden luxury box for Rangers games. Cablevision also hired Silver’s daughter. Lynch wound up paying a half-million dollars to settle a 2010 case with then-Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, who accused her of inappropriate attempts to influence the state pension fund, which was run by Silver allies. She was barred from future dealings with the fund. Another Silver benefactor, Caesars, paid a $25,000 fine for discounting the speaker’s Las Vegas junket.

William Rapfogel, Silver’s boyhood friend who sat next to him at synagogue all these years, is in prison, convicted of stealing up to $9 million from a Jewish charity for the poor that Silver blessed with millions in state funding. Rapfogel’s wife, Judy Rapfogel, was Silver’s chief of staff in the Assembly until he forfeited his office on conviction and claimed she knew nothing about stockpiles of cash her husband hid in their bedroom, which is in the same Grand Street building where the Silvers live.

Silver’s influence with two Assembly members, Herman “Denny” Farrell and Keith Wright, who ruled the Manhattan Democratic Party for decades, occasionally aided the party’s selection of judges like Martin Shulman, another Grand Street neighbor and buddy of Silver’s. Shulman wound up working in a special asbestos litigation unit and handling multimillion-dollar Weitz & Luxenberg cases, all of it abetted in part by Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, who won the highest judicial post in the state with the help of his lifelong friend Silver. Lippman appointed the head of the asbestos unit and initially elevated Shulman to the Supreme Court.

Working with Rapfogel, Silver blocked any affordable housing on a fallow, city-owned, 20-acre site near Grand Street in an attempt to prevent a black and Latino influx, ultimately favoring a commercial project championed by a developer who hired Rapfogel’s son.

When The New York Times exposed this 40-year history of politically wired obstruction, reporting that Silver was the attorney for the group opposing the housing, Silver said the paper had confused him with a Sheldon E. Silver, who’d since died, and who had written letters for the group. The Times’ letter, it turned out, was on Silver’s Assembly letterhead, and his legal work for the group was verified by countless other letters. Had Silver’s lawyers made any attempt to portray Silver as a man of character at the trial, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara would have undoubtedly seen to it that the Sheldon E. Silver farce had made it into the court record, probably during the testimony of Michael Whyland, Silver’s spokesman who led the media attack on the Times story.

The perpetually vacant lot was hardly the only example of Silver’s history of homegrown exclusion. The federal courts found the Grand Street projects themselves, run by Silver allies, discriminated against black and Latino applicants in a suit that named Ralph Lippman, the father of the chief judge, as a defendant.

The poetic irony of the Silver verdict was that a jury of mostly blacks and Latinos, and mostly women, convicted a man with such an ignominious history on race and harassment issues.

Of all of Silver’s crimes, the most disturbing was his abuse of cancer research funding, steering it to a doctor who sent him lucrative asbestos referrals. Everyone has felt cancer in their lives – afflicting family, friends or themselves. Silver’s brother succumbed to the disease shortly before the speaker started trading precious funding for millions in his bank account. Every dollar spent on research to fight cancer should be awarded on the comparative merits of the research, carefully vetted by medical experts. Silver’s half-million in grants were delivered in a dark alley, a silo of secrecy, payoffs without conscience.

The Assembly’s Democratic conference is filled with the high-minded, progressives on almost every big-picture social issue. But, faced with the greatest moral test of their lives, they looked away for years, shrugged, wrestled to find fine lines, and prospered from their silence, too ambitious or fearful to take on the elephant in their conference, a leader who advertised his conflicts, if not his criminality. 

They have replaced Silver with Carl Heastie, the longtime Bronx Democratic boss who just fixed the selection of the new district attorney, orchestrating resignations and sidestepping voters so the local party plutocrats, including Heastie, don’t have to look over their own shoulders. Heastie also backed out of a budget deadline deal to pass a bill that would have started the process of amending the constitution to prevent state convicts like Silver from collecting their pensions. The Assembly passed a different version of the bill that passed in the Senate, effectively killing the reform. Heastie has said he sees no need for ethics reform legislation, saying “it comes down to an individual’s morality,” a climate-like denial contradicted by 98 percent of all scientists or anyone else with open eyes in New York.

Like Silver, Heastie is a proud son of corruption, reared by a Bronx machine that lives to loot. Some call this guilt by association. Others call it associating with the guilty – which Silver proved often leads to becoming guilty oneself.

This story has been updated to clarify a point regarding the two different versions of a bill that would have prevented state convicts from collecting pensions.   

Wayne Barrett covered New York politics for 40 years and co-authored “City for Sale,” a chronicle of the great municipal scandal of the ’80s.