New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver is being given until Feb. 2 to resign his leadership position or he’ll face an ouster by fellow Democrats as he fights federal corruption charges.
The decision reached in an hours-long closed-door meeting Tuesday effectively ends Silver’s 21 years as the most powerful state lawmaker, Assembly Majority Leader Joe Morelle told reporters in Albany. It was the second day of negotiations during which Silver, 70, fought to stay in power even as a majority of his fellow Democrats who control the chamber called on him to step down.
“On Monday, there will be a vacancy in the office of speaker,” Morelle said. “We are confident we can go forward.”
The decision stems from the first graft charges since Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara began scrutinizing the legislature. The prosecutor turned his attention to Albany after Governor Andrew Cuomo shut down a corruption commission in March that was probing lawmakers. Bharara, who is also investigating the Cuomo administration for meddling with the panel, has said there’s more to come.
Tuesday night, Silver told reporters at the Capitol that he wouldn’t hinder a change in leadership, nor would he leave the Assembly, where he is paid $121,000 year, including a $41,500 leadership stipend.
“I will be a member of this house,” Silver said after Morelle’s announcement. “I was elected by my constituents; I don’t intend to resign my seat in this house.”
Under the plan, Morelle, a 57-year-old Rochester lawmaker, will take over as interim speaker until Feb. 10 to give potential successors to Silver time to campaign, he said. Bronx Assemblyman Carl Heastie and Harlem’s Keith Wright say they’re vying to permanently replace Silver. Joe Lentol, a Brooklyn confidant of Silver, said he’d step into the race only if Silver resigned.
The Feb. 2 deadline is the same day the 150-member Assembly is set to return to Albany to conduct business. As the 105 Democrats debated the process for picking their next leader and Silver’s future, the speaker remained cloistered in his office, his base of operation for years as he doled out favors and exacted retribution.
It’s up to Silver “whether he’ll step down himself or there’ll be a resolution” forcing him out, said Charles Barron, of Brooklyn.
The tumult in the Assembly started Jan. 22, when Silver was arrested. According to a complaint unsealed that day in federal court, Silver used his position to refer asbestos cases from a doctor to a personal-injury law firm he worked for, and to induce developers to retain another law firm, collecting as much as $6 million in kickbacks.
Silver has said he will be exonerated.
On Wednesday, Silver took a leave of absence from the personal-injury firm, New York-based Weitz & Luxenberg PC. In a statement e-mailed by the firm, Silver said he’s leaving so he won’t become a distraction. Perry Weitz, its president, said Silver was asked to take the leave until the charges are resolved.
“We were shocked to learn about the allegations against him of impropriety in the referral of cases to our firm,” Weitz said.
It’ll be up to the next speaker to represent the New York City-dominated chamber in negotiations with Cuomo, whose Jan. 21 budget takes on teacher unions from whom the Democratic majority partly draws its power. Silver, an unabashed liberal, has helped Cuomo, a fellow Democrat, win over a chamber whose members don’t always agree with the governor’s limits on spending and worker benefits.
Silver was first elected in 1976, and was chosen as speaker in 1994. He never lost power, even putting down an attempted coup in 2000 by then Majority Leader Michael Bragman.
Assembly Democrats initially said they supported Silver after meeting for almost two hours Jan. 22. That was before they’d read the legal case, they said, and before returning to their districts where they met outraged voters and heard from editorial boards calling for him to relinquish his post.
Assembly members convicted of a crime must resign. When merely charged, they may continue to serve.
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