When talking about corruption in legislature, many would think about thick envelopes changing hands with meaningful looks. On second thought, a more down-to-earth picture would involve government contracts in exchange for campaign contributions or policy loopholes created to serve special interests.
The problem is such corruption is very hard to prove. After all, the company may have been the best for the job and the loophole may have been unintentional.
But it was a bit different idea of corruption that led to the FBI’s arrest of New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver on Thursday. He was accused of disguising bribes as a legitimate income. Though it may appear smart to funnel bribe money through a third-party paycheck, the fact that there was actual money going into Silver’s pocket may be his undoing.
Most New Yorkers consider corruption in the state capital rather serious, polls show. At least six lawmakers were found or pleaded guilty to corruption charges since the 1990s. One more case, Brooklyn Democratic Senator John Sampson’s embezzlement of almost half a million dollars, is still on trial.
“It’s a cultural thing. It’s infused throughout the entire system,” said Ian Vandewalker, counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law in a past interview.
And then there’s Sheldon Silver.
The investigators are saying he collected almost $4 million in attorney referral fees for work he never did. Instead he arranged for the state to give grants and maintain subsidies and tax breaks for his benefactors.
The benefactors, one doctor and two developers, didn’t give money to Silver directly, but gave business to two law firms. The law firms then gave Silver a cut.
To make things more complicated, the benefactors may have not even known Silver profited from the deal. They may have thought they were just giving business to Silver’s friends—a milder way of influencing the lawmaker.
That points to a larger issue: A lot of potential corruption is technically legal, like benefiting lawmakers’ friends or campaign contributions with invisible strings attached.
“The biggest political donors get to determine what issues are talked about, what policy options are on the table, and what ultimately gets done,” Vandewalker said.
But just the fact that Preet Bharara, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, was able to make the case against Silver suggests the outside income may be a chance to catch corrupt politicians off guard.
After all, Bharara told the media to “stay tuned” for more.