New York politics were roiled Thursday when Sheldon Silver, the longtime speaker of the state Assembly, was charged with using the power of his office to seek and receive millions of dollars in bribes and kickbacks.
Silver surrendered to the FBI in Manhattan and appeared in court on the five-count complaint accusing him of mail fraud, wire fraud and extortion. He was released on $200,000 bail.
"I am confident that after a full hearing and due process, I'll be vindicated on the charges," said Silver, 70, as he left the courtroom. He faces 20 years in prison on each count.
U.S. Atty. Preet Bharara said Silver collected about $4 million in bribes and kickbacks disguised as referral fees. Authorities seized approximately $3.8 million of Silver's money Thursday, Bharara said.
"Over his decades in office, Speaker Silver has amassed titanic political power," Bharara said. "But, as alleged, during that same time, Silver also amassed a tremendous personal fortune — through the abuse of that political power."
Silver's lawyers denied the charges.
"We're disappointed that the prosecutors have chosen to proceed with these meritless criminal charges. That said, Mr. Silver looks forward to responding to them — in court — and ultimately his full exoneration," his lawyers, Joel Cohen and Steven Molo, said in a statement emailed to reporters.
In the calculus of lawmaking in Albany, the state capital, no bill is passed without Silver's consent. He can stay in the Legislature while he fights the charges, but there were already calls from Republicans for him to step aside. Silver was reelected as speaker Jan. 7.
Silver's political future, however, will depend on whether he can continue to control the Democratic caucus that runs the Assembly. Silver has built up a lot of credit with his fellow lawmakers after two decades as speaker.
This week, Silver was in Albany for Gov. Andrew Cuomo's State of the State address and had a prominent seat on the stage. Even after reports of the investigation into Silver recently surfaced, there were no serious signs of dissent among Democrats in his caucus.
The 35-page criminal complaint alleges that Silver, a lawyer, used "the power and influence of his official position to obtain for himself millions of dollars of bribes and kickbacks masked as legitimate income."
The complaint charges Silver with scheming to defraud and deprive the public of honest services, mail fraud and extortion, and alleges he received more than $6 million in outside income from two law firms since late 2002.
Legislators, who are allowed to have outside jobs, must file financial disclosure statements. Silver, who represents a district that includes Manhattan's Lower East Side, filed the proper documents, which included his income as a private lawyer representing individual clients at the law firm Weitz & Luxenberg, the complaint says. But these representations were false, according to the complaint.
"In truth and fact, Silver has obtained millions of dollars in outside income as a direct result of his corrupt use of his official position to obtain attorney referral fees for himself, including from clients with substantial business before the state," not the result of legitimate outside income, it is charged.
There are two broad areas of charges.
The first is that for more than a decade, Silver induced "real estate developers with business before the state" to use another law firm, Goldberg & Iryami, where Silver is listed as "of counsel." The firm is controlled by a lawyer who orchestrated payments to the speaker for referrals, according to the complaint.
The second area of the charges involves Silver's role at Weitz & Luxenberg, the complaint charges.
Silver is accused of participating in a scheme in which he used his position as speaker to secretly direct state funds to an unnamed doctor in exchange for obtaining referrals of asbestos cases from that doctor, the complaint says. The speaker received more than $3 million in fees through that scheme, according to the complaint.
The doctor specializes in treating patients suffering from mesothelioma, an asbestos-related cancer, according to the complaint.
The complaint says the federal charges stem from records obtained by investigators from the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption after it was disbanded by Cuomo in 2013.
Silver is accused of taking legal action and other steps to prevent the commission from learning about the schemes.
Republicans quickly called on Silver to step down.
"Sheldon Silver must immediately resign from the state Assembly," said NYGOP spokesman David Laska. "While this is another sad day for New York, we cannot be distracted from the important business of growing our economy and creating jobs."
State Sen. Brad Hoylman, a Democrat from Manhattan, took to Twitter on Thursday to call for Silver's resignation.
"Speaker Silver should resign for the good of the people of New York," he wrote.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said Silver should stay on as speaker until the charges were resolved. Silver has been a political ally of the mayor.
"Although the charges announced today are certainly very serious, I want to note that I've always known Shelly Silver to be a man of integrity, and he certainly has due process rights. And I think it's important that we let the judicial process play out here," De Blasio said.