Top New York pol under federal investigation

Although not well-known outside New York, Sheldon Silver, speaker of the New York State Assembly for the last two decades, is one of the most powerful politicians in the country.  And he is now under investigation by the feds for what looks like pretty serious scandal, according to the New York Times.  Three reporters, William K. RashbaumThomas Kaplan, and Susanne Craig, are on the story, meaning this is a big one.

Federal authorities are investigating substantial payments made to the State Assembly speaker, Sheldon Silver, by a small law firm that seeks real estate tax reductions for commercial and residential properties in New York City, according to people with knowledge of the matter.

Prosecutors from the United States attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York and agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation have found that the law firm, Goldberg & Iryami, P.C., has paid Mr. Silver the sums over roughly a decade, but that he did not list that income on his annual financial disclosure forms, as required, the people said.

The prosecutors, from the office of the United States attorney, Preet Bharara, and the F.B.I. agents were seeking to determine precisely what Mr. Silver, a Manhattan Democrat, has been doing for the payments, the people said. Spokesmen for the F.B.I. and Mr. Bharara’s office declined to comment.

At stake is a lot more than just Silver, important though he is:

The investigation into the Goldberg firm’s payments to Mr. Silver grew out of the work of the Moreland Commission, an anticorruption panel that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat, created in 2013 but abruptly shut down in March. Before it was shut down, the commission had investigated how lawmakers earn money outside of Albany, though the inquiry was stymied by a legal challenge from lawmakers and their employers.

The shutdown of the Moreland Commission itself is a major scandal, and if the feds bring an indictment and get a conviction, then Cuomo’s action will be shown to have shielded at least one lawbreaker, raising the question of what else he was covering up.  To put it mildly, New York State has never been regarded as an exemplar of good government, and once rocks start getting overturned, who knows what will come crawling out?

Among the suspicious circumstances:

He [Silver] is not known to have any expertise in the complex and highly specialized area of the law in which Goldberg & Iryami practices, known as tax certiorari, which involves challenging real estate tax assessments and seeking reductions from municipalities.

Law firms that practice this sort of law typically get paid on a contingency fee basis, meaning they keep a share (often one third) of the tax savings they realize for their clients.  When tax bills run into the millions, as they do on many New York properties, the legal fees beat the heck out of an hourly billing system, even at 500 bucks an hour.

For his part-time legal practice (while serving as speaker), Silver has done very well indeed:

Mr. Silver’s income from his private law practice well exceeds his legislative salary, which as speaker totals $121,000. On his most recent financial disclosure form, for 2013, he reported earning more than $650,000 from his outside legal work. But what he does to earn that money has long been shrouded in secrecy.

Nice income for a part-time job!

Keep your eyes on this one.  If Eric Holder’s successor doesn’t shut it down, this investigation could lead to some interesting places, what with the prospect of offering immunity in return for implicating others.  The fact that the investigation has been leaked to the New York Times suggests to me that canny federal prosecutors, well aware of the potential for making names for themselves by bagging some really prominent scalps in a political corruption prosecution, have just taken out an insurance policy against a shutdown from on high in the Justice Department.  Holder’s successor nominee, Loretta Lynch, will, after all, face confirmation hearings from a Republican-controlled Senate.

Hat tip: Michael Walsh, PJMedia