Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, New York’s Political Enigma: Part 2

In the past 13 years as Democratic Assembly Speaker, Sheldon Silver has become one of the three most powerful politicians in the state. Defenders say he has been an effective speaker who protects his assembly members and, as a legislator, keeps a close eye on his district.

Listen to Part 1

REPORTER: But some critics question whether he personally benefits from his public post. In the second of a two-part series, WNYC's Elaine Rivera looks at Silver's potential conflicts of interest.

They are referred to as the three men in the room: the governor, the senate majority leader and the assembly speaker, Sheldon Silver. The system has been cited as one of the least functional in the country but Sliver dismisses the criticism.

SILVER: We are functioning in an appropriate way when sometimes we stop bad things from happening to good people. For more than a decade, Silver has been at the helm of the state assembly where observers like Doug Muzzio, a public affairs professor at Baruch College, says his power is immense.

MUZZIO: He's got institutional power - the assembly as part of the legislature is much more a co-equal branch of government than for example the City Council is in New York. He's got real institutional power he's a player.

REPORTER: As one of the three voting members of the public authorities control board, Silver single handedly stopped a stadium from being built on the West Side; he gave his thumbs up to the controversial Atlantic Yards project; and he defied a new popular governor, Eliot Spitzer, by picking a comptroller from the assembly to replace Alan Hevesi -- dismissing Spitzer's recommendations

SPITZER AMBIENT SOUND –The reform we seek is substantial in size and historic in scope.

REPORTER: Spitzer rode into office on a strong platform of reform and Silver embraced a fellow democrat after clashing for 12 years with Republican George Pataki. Silver wants change as well. Those who know him say he operates from a strong moral code.

But while he talks of the need for reform, his critics say Silver operates in secrecy when it comes to his outside financial interests. The $75,500 legislative post is considered part time, so lawmakers are allowed to hold other jobs—Silver is an attorney. Legislators are not legally required to disclose what they make in these positions. Like most of his colleagues, Silver refuses to discuss his outside fees from Weitz and Luxembourg, a personal injury law firm. Silver says it would be unethical to reveal who he does business with, but when asked why he won't disclose his fees, he responds:

SILVER: I personally comply with the law as it stands now and I will continue to comply with the law.

REPORTER: But State Senator Liz Krueger, of Manhattan, says she wants to change that law. Krueger has introduced a number of reform bills to hold legislators more accountable.

KRUEGER: The question of what kind of information must you provide if you have outside income to me seems like a no-brainer.

REPORTER: Other critics who support tort reform say that Silver has been a major obstacle to changing the law to limit damages a person can seek. They believe there is a conflict of interest with Silver's post and his anti-tort reform stance. Here’s New York City Councilman Peter Vallone Junior at a recent budget hearing. Vallone expressed frustration that Silver had a hand in refusing to close a loophole that permitted injured public employees to collect two types of compensation.

VALLONE: By all thinking, reasoning people that is in the best interests of the taxpayer of this state and of this city does not exist because it was defeated by outright chicanery and fraud orchestrated by someone who is a tort attorney and makes an untold amount of money from a major tort firm that has the unmitigated gall to be on the radio as we speak saying they "understand the law and the politics of tort litigation and has single handedly prevented reform in this state.

REPORTER: Brooklyn State Senator Carl Kruger, an ardent supporter of tort reform, also expressed his anger at Silver for not even considering the issue.

KRUGER: It's a huge breach of ethics where someone can be collecting a huge income from a law firm that has some kind of unholy alliance with the trial lawyers association and with these kind of issues.

REPORTER: When asked why the Assembly won't address the issue, Kruger says bluntly:

KRUGER: Being the speaker, fish rots at the head.

REPORTER: But Silver waves away these critics, candidly explaining why he opposes tort reform.

SILVER: It's not a matter of conflict - it's a matter of my believing that people should pay for the damages they cause. I don't really know Peter Vallone Jr. - he never met me at any length of time and I never met him but if he thinks he can advance his own political career in that fashion I would suggest he ought to have some substance to him other than attacking someone else and I would suggest to him that people who live in glass houses should not throw stones.

REPORTER: Silver also dismisses critics who say that the Dolan family, who own Madison Square Garden and opposed the West Side stadium, had any influence over his decision. Also, there were reports that he stalled the Moynihan transit project because of the Dolans. Former economic development czar Charles Gargano even pointed out that one of Silver's daughters worked for the Dolans. But Silver angrily sets the record straight:

SILVER: Let's be very clear. My daughter was a summer intern for six weeks about five years ago when she was in college and she applied for a summer job that paid her I believe about twelve dollars an hour or three hundred dollars a week for six or eight weeks whatever it was and it's absolutely ridiculous for the New York Post again to attribute any kind of conflict to that to the whole issue of the West Side stadium was not in play at all.

REPORTER: Those who know Silver say he operates by his own moral compass who takes unpopular tough stands when he needs to. His fellow Democratic legislators and his constituents are adamant about him. They say he comes through.

Veteran Harlem Assemblyman Herman Denny Farrell.

FARRELL: Remember if he were not doing what the members wanted him to do he would not be the speaker because it's a collegial thing he's an assembly person just like we are and we would remove him...

Constituent Phyllis Kaufman is another fan. For 50 years she’s lived on the Lower East Side where Silver grew up, raised a family and still resides.

KAUFMAN: I like him very, very much - I think for seniors he is the best and I don't care about juniors I care about my group and I think he is the greatest and I don't care what anyone says

REPORTER: And if it's up to Virginia Kee, founding member of the Chinese-American Planning Council who has known the speaker for 25 years, Silver can have his seat as long as he wants. She says he's delivered for her community.

KEE: Well, I think people who say he is too powerful feel that he's too powerful for them but since he protects us he's not too powerful for us more power to him, more power to him...

Silver will be seeking his 16th term in 2008. For WNYC, I'm Elaine Rivera