Former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a backroom master whose name was synonymous with political power in New York for a generation, was sentenced Tuesday to 12 years in prison, destined to take his place atop the state's crowded lineup of crooked politicians behind bars.
Silver, a 72-year-old Manhattan Democrat, lowered his head slightly and closed his eyes briefly as a stern U.S. Judge Valerie Caproni announced his fate.
"I hope the sentence I impose upon you will make other politicians think twice until their better angels take over — or, if there are no better angels, perhaps the fear of living out his golden years in an orange jumpsuit," said Caproni, who also ordered Silver to forfeit $5.3 million and pay a $1.75 million fine.
Silver led the Assembly for more than two decades before he became the centerpiece of one of New York's steepest political falls from grace. He was convicted last year in a $5 million corruption case alleging he traded favors to enrich himself and then lied about it.
"I believe in the justice system, and we will pursue all remedies that are available," Silver said as he left court. He's free on bail for now; he's scheduled to report to prison July 1.
His sentencing was a marquee moment in Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara's quest to clean up a state government he has called a "cauldron of corruption."
More than 30 other state lawmakers have left office under a cloud of criminal or ethical allegations since 2000. More than a dozen have been convicted of charges including authorizing bribes to get on a ballot, diverting money meant for community programs into a campaign and skimming funds from contributions to a Little League baseball program. Only Democratic former Assemblyman William Boyland Jr., convicted of taking bribes, is serving a longer sentence than Silver's.
Silver's former state Senate counterpart, Republican ex-Majority Leader Dean Skelos, is due to be sentenced later this month on his own corruption conviction. Skelos was found guilty, at a separate trial, of using his position to arrange payments and a job for his son.
Bharara called Silver's sentence "a just and fitting end to Sheldon Silver's long career of corruption."
The gray-haired, bespectacled Silver was first elected in 1976 and served as speaker for 21 years, becoming the classic Albany insider with the power to control bills and state spending singlehandedly in behind-the-scenes negotiations. Known for his often inscrutable comments and wary, phlegmatic demeanor, Silver gained the nickname "the Sphinx."
Prosecutors say Silver came to trade his office for $4 million in kickbacks from a cancer researcher and real estate developers. In a pre-sentencing filing, prosecutors also said he'd abused his position by giving preferential professional treatment to two women with whom he had extramarital affairs. He helped one get a state government job, prosecutors said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Carrie Cohen said Tuesday that Silver had been protected for years by systems he put in place to cover up his crimes, including measures to restrict disclosures of outside income.
Silver told the judge Tuesday he had let down his family, colleagues and constituents.
"I'm truly, truly sorry for that," he said.
His lawyers sought a sentence of community service and house arrest, saying Silver still could help the public and noting that he has been treated for prostate cancer over the last year.
Silver and Skelos comprised two of the so-called "three men in a room" who control state government. The third man, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, promised sweeping changes to New York's anti-corruption laws after Silver's and Skelos' convictions. But the Republican-led Senate and Democratic Assembly are deadlocked on proposed reforms.
The response to Silver's sentencing was muted among legislators. Cuomo, meanwhile, said it "sent a simple message that officials who abuse the public's trust will be held accountable."
Bharara also is investigating Cuomo's office, looking into potential conflicts of interest and improper bidding in a signature state economic development program in Buffalo. The prosecutor also is examining consulting work done by one of Cuomo's former top aides in 2014, when the aide spent eight months on leave. In response, Cuomo's administration is conducting an internal review.