Will the Sheldon Silver Conviction Affect Orthodox Jewish Power in New York?

The 'ruler' of New York’s state assembly, now facing 130 years in prison for corruption, was just as unresponsive to his religious constituents as to the law.

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Sheldon Silver leaves federal court after being found guilty, November 30, 2015.
Sheldon Silver leaves federal court after being found guilty, November 30, 2015.Credit: AFP
Seth Lipsky
Seth Lipsky

At first blush it might seem that the conviction of Sheldon Silver on all counts levied against him in the most important corruption case since Tammany Hall will precipitate a downward spiral in a certain kind of Orthodox Jewish power in New York. But I have my doubts. One of the sad facts about Silver, who ruled the state assembly for a generation but is now facing 130 years in prison, is that he was indifferent to the concerns of religious principle.

New Yorkers learned this back in 2007, when the question of same-sex marriage came before the legislature. It did so in dramatic fashion, after the state’s highest court ruled that the Constitution left the matter to the legislature. “We believe the present generation should have a chance to decide the issue through its elected representatives,” the court stated. It hoped that New Yorkers would “address their arguments to the Legislature” and that the lawmakers would listen.

In the event, Silver refused to do so. At the time the Orthodox Jewish community was desperately seeking a hearing to alert the legislators to its concerns. It wasn’t just the Jews. The Catholics and members of the fundamentalist Christian churches were also alarmed that their free exercise rights could be put in jeopardy. Silver refused them all a hearing. He held hearings on just about every other issue before the Assembly, but the legislature proved deaf to religious concerns.

It’s not my purpose here to opine one way or another on same-sex marriage. It is rather to underline one of the reasons New Yorkers so resented the head of the Democratic caucus in the Assembly. Silver had long since made up his mind about same-sex marriage (he was for it), and he would brook no caviling by clergy, particularly not in a public hearing. Same-sex marriage did become law, but with fewer religious protections than hearings might have shown the need for.

That illuminates the real tragedy of Sheldon Silver. The ideals of a legislature didn’t interest him. What the jury concluded is that he was an old fashioned crook, motivated not so much by power or politics as by money. Enormous sums — he gained $4 million with schemes of fraud, extortion, and money laundering. He sold his office to benefit real-estate and medical interests. New Yorkers suspected as much for years. It turned out to be as bad as they imagined.

Silver hasn’t been sentenced yet, but he could end up in the same prison where his long-time friend William Rapfogel served the start of his time. Rapfogel had headed the Metropolitan Council for Jewish Poverty, which appeared to be one of the nobler charities in New York until Rapfogel was arrested for taking kickbacks in a scheme that gained him $3 million. Investigators turned up $400,000 in cash stashed in homes Rapfogel shared with his wife, Judith, who was Silver’s chief of staff.

Silver’s lawyers have said they’re going to file motions to set aside the conviction brought in on Monday, and it would be foolish to rule out any possibility. One major Albany figure, Joseph Bruno, former leader of the Republican majority in the state senate, was recently vindicated after a long court battle against his own conviction on corruption charges unrelated to Silver’s case. Bruno’s successor, Dean Skelos, is currently on trial in yet another corruption case.

If there is a clean sweep, how are the politicians going to get their money? It turns out there’s a new scheme already afoot — a plan under for publicly funding elections. This is a favorite boondoggle of the New York Times. The idea is that the politicians would pass a law to force voters to pay for politicians’ campaign expenses whether they want to or not. It would steer a fortune to politicians from the long-suffering taxpayers of New York. And, sadly, make it ever easier for politicians to ignore New Yorkers of all stripes yearning for a hearing in Albany.

Seth Lipsky is editor of The New York Sun. He was a foreign editor and a member of the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal, founding editor of The Forward and editor from 1990 to 2000.

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