Following a stunning decision last Thursday by a federal judge to overturn the conviction for corruption against former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, State Senator Brad Hoylman is predicting more of the same bad behavior in Albany.
“I am concerned that the overturning of the Silver verdict might give a green light for some public officials to engage in legal graft,” said Hoylman, who’s been pushing for ethics reforms for years. Those reforms include the closure of the so-called LLC Loophole, limiting outside income for legislators, prohibiting convicted legislators from using campaign cash on their own defense and taking away convicted legislators’ pensions.
Additionally, Hoylman said he believes the court’s decision will hurt tenants in New York City.
“The Silver case props up the status quo and the status quo if left alone will result in the end of rent stabilization as we know it,” said Hoylman.
Hoylman added, “It’s up to the legislature to provide clarification (on what constitutes corruption). It’s up to the state of New York to pass laws that prevent that from happening, but given what we’ve seen, I don’t think the current Senate leadership has any desire to address this disaster, especially since their former leader may get off using the same argument that Sheldon Silver’s attorneys did.”
In the past two weeks the former speaker of the New York State Assembly was sentenced to prison for 12 years for corruption and misuse of his government position. And the former Senate Majority Leader was handed a five-year sentence for similar crimes. These two convictions, and lengthy prison terms in a federal penitentiary follows a decade of state and city public officials having been found guilty of various felonies mostly having to do with self-enrichment at the public’s expense.
These cases have further soured the public on government and politics. They have ushered in a generation of cynicism about the honest administration of our government institutions.
The first responsibility of our current office holders in Albany and City Hall is to stanch the damage and restore public trust. This will not be easy, but it is necessary. Without the confidence of the electorate, democracy is badly undermined. Without trust in the basic honesty of elected officials the implied compact between voters and those they elect disintegrates and a representative form of government ceases to exist.
Once again the light is shining brightly on the Albany scene… and not in a good way. The last chapter of the saga of convicted Dean Skelos (former Senate Majority Leader) and convicted Shelly Silver (former Assembly Speaker) is about to be written as they are soon to be sentenced for their crimes and misdeeds as leaders of the State Legislature. In the meantime more unsavory information has come to light about the former speaker’s personal life and ways in which those relationships compromised the public trust. Undoubtedly both men will be sentenced to prison and maybe for a considerable length of time. The specter of these two legislative leaders being led off to incarceration is a profoundly sad day for New York State government.
For me personally it is enormously painful to watch. For the public it is more than a little disillusioning.
I served with both Dean and Shelly and consider them both to be friends. Shelly and I shared a close political relationship for all the 28 years that I served in the Assembly until 2006. My sense of unreality at what was going on just beyond the sight of their colleagues and just beneath the surface has shocked me. If I were still in the Assembly, would I have known? And If I had known what would I have said or done?
It’s not as if they are stupid. It’s not as if they do not read the newspapers. But a significant number of powerful members of Congress have proven to be utterly unresponsive and impotent in the face of the gun carnage going on in American cities almost every week. Worse than that, they are craven.
They proved it again last week.
Repeated mass murders are being committed by deranged individuals with military grade assault weapons.
They are perpetrating these atrocities out of some twisted ideology, warped personal grudges, or delusions. And our leaders of Congress are nowhere to be found. They are AWOL. They denounce the criminals, pray for the victims and walk away. Then it’s back to business as usual, which means bowing to the self-serving gun lobby and its supporters who are making a fortune from the sale of firearms.
Last week more than a dozen innocent bystanders were gunned down in a San Bernadino office building for the disabled. They were male, female, black, white, Asian and Hispanic. Hundreds of bullets fired into a crowd in a matter of seconds do not discriminate. The week before, three persons were shot to death in a Planned Parenthood facility in Colorado. These massacres are accomplished with easily and legally bought high powered assault weapons, again and again!
And if there are evildoers coming into this country with the intent of committing murder and mayhem, why would we not want to prevent them from accessing the means to carry out these despicable acts of violence?
In the face of that question, the United States Senate just days ago voted down a proposed ban on the sale of weapons to persons on the FBI terrorist watch list. The NRA is cheering that action while more families are burying their dead.
The trial began last week. It is officially referenced as “The United States vs. Sheldon Silver.” It is really about the culture of government in many state capitols… but in this case Albany. The facts in this trial involve the conduct of the former Speaker of the Assembly who for 20 years was arguably the most powerful state elected official with the exception of the governor. The prosecution is focusing on Silver’s alleged illegal activities which resulted in his personal enrichment. It is attempting to show that Silver broke the law and the public trust by taking actions not based on good policy but rather based on enhancing his own power and fortune.
And next week the corruption trial of former State Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos will begin. These two trials will shed considerable light on how laws are made and will peel back the onion layers of backroom deal making in Albany. The result will surely leave a bad taste.
But it is much more complicated than that.
I served in the State Assembly for 28 years until 2006. At the end I was privileged to be near the pinnacle of power in that body as chairman of an important committee and one of the most senior members. I also worked closely with Mr. Silver on a range of legislative issues. Whatever else may be said and alleged of Sheldon Silver, I can attest that he committed his time and intellect to the job. He devoted more hours than any other public official that I came into contact with. And at least in my experience he sought out what he thought was the right public policy on an array issues important to the lives of ordinary New Yorkers. Did he betray the public trust in some of his private back room dealings? I do not know. Is he guilty of pocketing millions of dollars because of influence peddling? A jury will have to decide that.
Following the news that last week that Sheldon Silver, the longtime speaker of the Assembly, is being investigated for mysterious payments received for his non-legislative work as an attorney, what effect this may have, if any, on tenants, remains to be seen. Silver and the Democrat-led Assembly have been supporters of the rent laws, which are up for renewal this year.
Last Monday, the New York Times reported how Silver is being investigated by federal authorities over substantial payments he received from a small law firm, Goldberg & Iryami that seeks tax reductions for different properties in the city. The investigation over the payments, made over a period of a decade, is to determine precisely what kind of work Silver, a personal injury attorney, did since he isn’t known to have experience in challenging real estate tax assessments, the Times said. The payments weren’t listed on his annual financial disclosure forms. The investigation began out of work done by the governor’s now defunct Moreland Commission.
A spokesperson for Silver did not respond to a request for comment from Town & Village on the investigation. There was also no response to our question of what, if anything, the speaker plans to do to strengthen the rent stabilization laws that are up for renewal this June.
Meanwhile, Mike McKee, treasurer of TenantsPAC (Political Action Committee), said he thinks it’s too soon to predict if an investigation of Silver could weaken the position of Assembly Democrats.
“It’s hard to say; Shelly’s been investigated before many times,” said McKee.
Silver, who made it through a coup attempt in 2000, was also more recently under scrutiny for authorizing hush money payments to staffers of former Assemblyman Vito Lopez, who said he sexually harassed them.
“I have no reason to believe he won’t be elected speaker (again). At the moment, this is simply newspaper stories. If something major comes out of this investigation, if he’s indicted, that’s another matter.” (On Wednesday morning, Silver was re-elected as speaker.)
TeantsPAC Treasurer Mike McKee (Photo by Sabina Mollot)
By Sabina Mollot
As is well known by tenant activists, the State Senate has long been the realm where any tenant-friendly legislation, from MCI limitations to elimination of preferential rents, has gone to die. While it did seem likely that the Democrats would be controlling the Senate after Election Day, following a decision by rogue Democrat group, the Independent Democratic Coalition, to end an alliance with Republicans, the Republicans then managed to win a narrow, but still clear majority, making an alliance with the IDC unnecessary.
Some critics have been quick to put the blame on the Election Day results on nation-wide voting trends as well as low turnout during a non-presidential election year. Others have said the blame is Governor Cuomo’s for not making an effort to help the Democrat candidates.
Mike McKee, treasurer of Tenants Political Action Committee, is in the latter camp, saying he believes Cuomo would rather have Republicans running the Senate.
“I’m very cynical about whether we will get any help from the governor,” he said. “On the one hand it’s better to have a governor who wants the rent laws on the books unlike George Pataki, but to keep them the way they are — containing the seeds of their own destruction — is not the answer.”
As for what all of this will mean for tenants with the rent regulation laws up for renewal or expiration next year, McKee said while the real estate industry clearly has the edge with a Republican-controlled Senate, tenants may still have a shot at getting some meaningful reform. That is, if they’re willing to fight for it.
“We have some leverage we didn’t have three years ago if Shelly Silver chooses to use it,” said McKee, “things that can be traded.”
The leverage, he believes, is in the 421-a and J-51 tax breaks, which owners want to be passed and property tax caps, “which the governor very much wants.”
McKee made a point to note that he personally abhors the 421-a tax abatement since it subsidizes “billionaires buying condos.” But developers want it as well as J-51, with McKee saying they hadn’t been scared off by “Roberts v. Tishman Speyer,” which ruled that owners accepting those breaks couldn’t deregulate apartments in those properties. “Those programs are extremely lucrative,” he said. And, said McKee, tenants should keep their eyes on the prize, which is vacancy deregulation.
“We mean full repeal. Not simply raising the threshold like they did three years ago. They raised the threshold and called it a great victory and they’re still trying to spin it as a victory when it was a cosmetic change.” This was in reference to the amendment of the law that allowed landlords to de-regulate an apartment if the rent was $2,000 and the tenant’s income was $175,000 for two years, by increasing that amount to $2,500 or more and $200,000.
“We have rent stabilized apartments in Stuyvesant Town renting for $5,000 or more because politicians allowed the rent laws to be trampled,” McKee added.
What tenants can do, he said, is ask their Assembly members to put pressure on Speaker Sheldon Silver to get tenant-friendly legislation to become more than just one-house bills.
“Do I think Shelly Silver is likely to do this on his own initiative? No. He’s going to have to be pushed,” said McKee. “If he’s going to just posture and introduce bills that die in the Senate, and put out press releases saying how pro-tenant the Assembly is, we’re in trouble. The question is whether or not the governor and the speaker will use that leverage.”
What doesn’t need to be fought for, said McKee, is repeal of the Urstadt Law, which would return home rule on housing to the city. Focusing on that this year, he believes is a trap, since the odds of the Senate agreeing to to it are too slim.
“We need a lot of things,” he said. “We need MCI reform so MCI increases aren’t permanent and compounded into the base rent and reform of the Rent Guidelines Board and stopping the 20 percent vacancy bonuses. But without vacancy deregulation, none of those changes are going to mean anything, because without the rent regulation system, in a few years there won’t be anything left.”
McKee believes that close to 400,000 units of affordable housing have been lost in the past 20 years due to erosion of the rent laws. In 1996, 56 percent of rental units in the city were rent controlled or rent stabilized, based on figures from a city housing and vacancy survey that’s done every three years. Fifteen years later, in 2011, that number had been whittled down to 47 percent, based on the same source. “That should tell you something about the rate of loss,” he said. In some cases, this is due to condo or co-op conversion, but the majority of those cases are vacancy deregulation.
And as always, said McKee, tenants should also keep their mouths open — not to mention their wallets —in the effort to help TenantsPAC.
“I’m talking about money, I’m talking about bodies,” he said. “We have all volunteers so 95 percent of all we raise goes directly to the candidates we support.” (The other 5 percent goes to the organization’s phone, internet, and office rent expenses.) The money, however, never comes close to what the real estate industry spends to elect Republicans. (As of October 20, the Real Estate Board of New York had spent $1.9 million and owner group the Rent Stabilization Association spent $500,000.) Additionally, unlike REBNY, the RSA did this quietly, funneling the funds to a Washington, D.C.-based Republican State Leadership Committee which then gave an even larger amount to a New York group which spent heavily to elect Republicans, Crain’s reported on Friday.
The tenants do have one advantage though. “One of the things we bring to the table that the real estate lobby doesn’t is volunteers.”
He noted that many volunteers as well as donors have been residents of Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village. But for those whose rent demands don’t allow for large donations or work schedules don’t leave time for trips upstate to go door-knocking, McKee recommends phone banking as a good alternative for would-be volunteers. This can be done at home, usually in the evenings, and even after elections, since TenantsPAC phone banks in support of legislation.
As for why Election Day was such a dismal one for Democrat legislators and candidates, McKee believes Democrat voter apathy is partially to blame. While he was in upstate Kingston going door to door to campaign for Democrat Senator CeCe Tkaczyk, who ended up losing, he saw it firsthand.
“In non-presidential election years, Republican voters show up and Democrats tend to stay home,” he said.