Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Will Silver conviction lead to investigation of ally Forest City Ratner? Or any changes in Albany?

Longtime Assembly Speaker (and, most recently, just Assemblyman) Sheldon Silver has been convicted in a federal corruption trial, having gained nearly $4 million in kickbacks from two schemes. Surely he will appeal, but, for now, the judgments are harsh

As the Times put it in an editorial:
Mr. Silver used public funds or promoted legislation that benefited a cancer researcher and two real estate firms. In one scheme, Mr. Silver used a secret discretionary fund at his disposal to make two grants totaling $500,000 to Dr. Robert Taub at Columbia University. Dr. Taub then referred patients suffering from mesothelioma to the law firm Weitz & Luxenberg, which then paid Mr. Silver for the referrals.
In another scheme, in return for support for legislation benefiting real estate interests, Mr. Silver pushed Glenwood Management and the Witkoff Group to refer some tax matters to a small law firm, Goldberg & Iryami. That firm then secretly sent a portion of its fees to Mr. Silver. Mr. Silver’s lawyers tried to argue that this kind of quid pro quo was normal in Albany. While it might indeed be business as usual, the jury rejected that defense in three days of deliberations.
Real reform coming?

Observers wonder if there will be real reform, especially since Silver's defense was that his behavior was not quid pro quo and business as usual. Politico's Jimmy Vielkind was cynically doubtful:
Three (maybe four) men will still meet in a room to decide the state's legislative agenda, who gets what billion in the budget process and, even, what the ethical and political rules of engagement will be. They had little to say in response to the verdict.
Silver's successor Carl Heastie stated that he was “deeply saddened” by the events of the year and promised that the chamber's ruling Democrats remain “committed to exploring ideas and implementing reforms to restore trust in our government.”
Cuomo, a Democrat, did not mention Silver's name in a statement that announced “justice was served,” and said that “with the allegations proven, it is time for the Legislature to take seriously the need for reform.”
Prior comments from the men were more informative. At the Capitol last month, the new speaker said the verdict was “not relevant” and that the latest half-measure of disclosure should play out before more changes are made.
 Writes David Howard King in Gotham Gazette:
Some advocates and legislators have railed against Silver's influence for years, decrying the concentration of power of the 'three men in a room,' of which Silver was one until he was indicted and resigned his leadership post. Some thought that with Silver all but gone Albany would somehow be redeemed. That redemption has been elusive.
As Silver faces decades of prison sentencing, Albany is still left to write its own rules. The men in charge, including Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, who replaced Silver, have indicated there is currently no appetite for more reform and have rejected calls for special session on ethics.
The Post's Bob McManus writes:
Certainly, the successors to Silver and [Senate Majority Leader Dean] Skelos [currently on trial] — Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan — have been distressingly accommodating to a return to the legislative “member-item” pork that has been at the core of most of the lower-level corruption cases Bharara has prosecuted to date.
And Cuomo has been more than willing to play along — indeed, to encourage the old ways. Chalk that up to lessons not learned.
A fully sanitized political process, of course, is not possible — nor is it even desirable. Governments based on civic virtue have scarcely ever existed — because they simply don’t work. (Sorry about that, League of Women Voters.)
But at some point over the past few decades, legislative-lobby horse trading in Albany crossed a line.
The Forest City role

The Times quoted U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara:
When he filed charges against Mr. Silver, Mr. Bharara said that if the former speaker is convicted, “how can we trust that anything that gets decided in Albany is on the level?” After Monday’s verdict, that is a very good question.
So, why not look into the curious connections, first reported here,  and later amplified in a long New York Times report in March 2014, between Forest City Ratner, Silver, and Silver's longtime friend, the recently convicted (and now on work release) charity leader William Rapfogel, whose wife Judy was Silver's longtime chief of staff.

(Note that prosecutors might have gone after Forest City Ratner in the Yonkers corruption case involving the developer's Ridge Hill project, though the case was much stronger against the elected official involved.)

The Times reported:
And the ties between Mr. Silver, Mr. Rapfogel and Mr. Ratner strengthened.
The Rapfogels’ eldest son, Michael, finished law school in 2005 and soon went to work for Mr. Ratner. The job was seen internally as a way to please Mr. Silver, say people familiar with the son’s work; Mr. Ratner’s company rejects the notion.
The Times described the Atlantic Yards connection:
In 2006, the Public Authorities Control Board, over which Mr. Silver has significant control, approved Mr. Ratner’s Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn. Intervention by Mr. Silver and others enabled the project to retain a lucrative tax break, even as that break was actually being phased out.
In 2008, Forest City Ratner, which compared to other developers makes few political contributions, gave $58,420 to the Democratic Assembly Housekeeping Committee, which is controlled by Mr. Silver.
That same year, Mr. Ratner helped raise $1 million for Met Council and was honored at a luncheon given by Mr. Rapfogel and Mr. Silver. 
The Times did not mention that, when Ratner in 2013 sponsored a concert of Jewish cantorial music at the Barclays Center, profits went to support Rapfogel's Met Council.  I suggested that the evidence suggested an effort to bolster ties with a charitable ally, Rapfogel, and the powerful Silver.

I even predicted that Forest City might even wind up partnering with the Met Council on a bid to develop the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area. And I was right--though the bid, evaluated after Rapfogel was busted, obviously didn't succeed.

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