It is essential to note first what a federal appeals court in Manhattan did not do on Thursday when it overturned the 2015 corruption conviction of Sheldon Silver, one of New York State’s most powerful politicians for more than 20 years. The judges did not find Mr. Silver to be a blameless man who’d been wronged. On the contrary, they flatly rejected his arguments — “none of which have merit” — that there wasn’t sufficient evidence to find him guilty of taking nearly $4 million in illicit payments from people whom he helped in his capacity as State Assembly speaker.
Nonetheless, the court tossed out the conviction because a United States Supreme Court ruling last year narrowed the definition of what types of official misconduct could sustain a corruption prosecution.
Simply arranging a meeting or hosting an event is not enough, the justices ruled; an official must make, or agree to make, a decision, or pressure another official to do so, implicitly or explicitly — and with the expectation of something of value in return. In light of that ruling, which had vacated the corruption conviction of former Gov. Bob McDonnell of Virginia, the court in New York concluded that the trial judge in the Silver case had given the jury improperly broad instructions.
Mr. Silver, who was sentenced to 12 years in prison, is hardly out of the woods. The acting United States attorney in Manhattan, Joon Kim, announced he would put the former speaker on trial again, and “we do not expect justice to be denied.” The evidence seems to meet even the Supreme Court’s more exacting standard.
Mr. Silver’s jury found he gave $500,000 in grants to a cancer doctor who then referred patients to Mr. Silver’s law firm — which paid Mr. Silver for the referrals. The speaker also agreed to back rent legislation supported by a real estate outfit that referred tax matters to a law firm that gave Mr. Silver a portion of its fees.
One New Yorker surely hoping now to benefit from the Supreme Court ruling as Mr. Silver did is Dean Skelos, the former State Senate majority leader. In 2015 he was found guilty of helping three companies in exchange for their giving jobs to his son, Adam, who was also convicted. The McDonnell decision looms large over their appeals, as it will in political corruption cases nationwide.
The Silver and Skelos prosecutions, two on a long list of Albany corruption cases, underlined the need for ethics reform in the capital, including greater transparency on lawmakers’ outside income and on disclosures about work the lawyers among them do for clients with state business.
Even the three judges who issued Thursday’s ruling saw reason to be upset with Albany’s idea of normality. “We recognize,” Judge José Cabranes wrote, “that many would view the facts adduced at Silver’s trial with distaste.” That might qualify as understatement of the year.
— NEW YORK TIMES