Politics

Sheldon Silver, New York power broker for decades before downfall, dies at 77

Sheldon Silver, New York’s once-powerful Assembly speaker who was sentenced to prison after decades in office on corruption charges, has died in federal custody. He was 77.

The cause of death was not known. He died Monday at Nashoba Valley Medical Center, located near the Devens Federal Medical Center where was incarcerated, the federal Bureau of Prisons confirmed to CBS News.

Obit Sheldon Silver
Former New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver leaves federal court on May 11, 2018. 

Mary Altaffer / AP


Silver last year had asked a judge for leniency, saying he did not want to die in prison. But Judge Valerie Caproni responded that he was guilty of “corruption, pure and simple,” said a “nonjail sentence is simply not appropriate.”

Silver, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, represented the Lower East Side neighborhood where he grew up and where his father once ran a hardware store. He attended Yeshiva University and received his law degree from Brooklyn Law School.

He only practiced law for a few years before being elected to the Assembly in 1976. But since Assembly jobs are part-time, he remained “of counsel” at the law firm Weitz & Luxenberg, a personal-injury law firm, until he was arrested on corruption charges in 2015 for activities related to the law firm.

Silver, known as “Shelly” throughout Albany, was a left-of-center Democrat who succeeded in navigating through the capital’s power system. He became Assembly Speaker in 1994, shortly before Democratic Governor Mario Cuomo lost as Republicans swept into elected offices nationwide. 

As speaker, he traveled the state extensively and kept his authority by being in close contact with all his members. According to The New York Times, he controlled everything from their parking spots to the size and location of their offices to their pay raises. His loyal followers were rewarded with higher-paying leadership posts, while those who once tried to lead a rebellion against him were left with little influence or even on the losing side of a redistricting battle. 

In 2013, Charmian Neary, a former legislative aide who had once brought a sexual harassment suit against the Assembly, told The New York Times that members “fear the speaker more than they fear the voters. With a 96 percent re-election rate for incumbents, they don’t have to worry about getting turned out of office.” 

Silver dedicated himself to statewide issues such as K-12 education and higher education, but also remained steadfast in his support for rent regulations in New York City and blocked Republican efforts to end them. 

He could be an inscrutable and stubborn negotiator, blocking proposals so often he was sometimes called “Dr. No,” according to CBS New York. Some of his obstructionist reputation had to do with being the lone Democrat at the negotiating table during Republican Governor George Pataki’s three terms, a time when the GOP also controlled the state Senate. But not all of it.

He helped scuttle former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s plan to locate a football stadium on Manhattan’s West Side. And he took the brunt of the blame for the collapse in 2008 of Bloomberg’s congestion-pricing plan for Manhattan, which would have charged electronic tolls for driving through the borough’s most highly trafficked neighborhoods.

In 2015, then-Governor Andrew Cuomo described Silver as one of the “three men in the room” who made the decisions in Albany. Former state Senate majority leader Dean Skelos, one of the other men in the room, was convicted two weeks after Silver for pressuring businessmen to give his son a no-show job. Cuomo, the third man in the room, resigned in August 2021 amid allegations of sexual misconduct. 

Silver came under investigation for his outside income at Weitz & Luxenberg. Prosecutors alleged he had traded his influence for money, accusing him of persuading a physician to refer asbestos cancer patients to his law firm so it could seek multimillion-dollar settlements from personal injury lawsuits, CBS New York reported. Prosecutors said he received $3 million in referral fees, and in return, he allegedly directed hundreds of thousands of dollars in state grants to a research center run by the doctor.

He was convicted in November 2015 on seven charges of honest services fraud, extortion and money laundering. But Silver would not go down without a fight, and the conviction was thrown out by the U.S. Supreme Court. Prosecutors retried him on a charge tailored to the court’s ruling, and also accused him of supporting legislation that benefited real estate developers who were referring tax business to the law firm.

Convicted at his second trial, Silver was sentenced in 2018 to six and a half years in prison. He began serving his sentence in 2020, despite pleas from his lawyers about his health problems and the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Silver begged for mercy ahead of his sentencing in a letter to the judge, saying he was “broken-hearted” he had caused people to lose faith in government. 

“I pray I will not die in prison,” Silver wrote. 

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