We the People: Money matters at the City Council and in Albany

It seems that the only thing elected officials can consistently do well is to stick their hands into the pockets of hardworking citizens. When a politician is caught with a hand in the cookie jar, then an army of lawyers will convince some judge that since the cookies weren’t good in there, the malefactor should be set free since there was no harm done. Majority Leader Bruno was convicted and then exonerated, and then the taxpayers were sentenced to settle up his multimillion dollar legal tab.

In New York City, there is a rumor that councilmembers are seeking a raise in salary from $112,500 to $192,500 a year. City Council Speaker Mark-Viverito called the figure “a ridiculous amount” and downplayed the rumor to the press. However, the councilmembers would not refuse a raise and a three-person commission is currently preparing a report for the mayor on salary increases for all elected officials.

The Post reported that a $155,000 salary for councilmembers is being “floated around City Hall.” These elected officials are allowed to earn outside income and get bonuses known as “lulus,” as much as $25,000, for being in charge of City Council committees. They can live without a raise. If it is appropriate for police officers to be awarded a one percent annual raise, then it is ridiculous for elected officials to consider seeking a 40 percent or 70 percent increase in salary.

In Albany, there is still “pay to play.” It used to be called graft. In the courtroom where Sheldon Silver, former speaker of the New York State Assembly, is on trial for allegedly using his office to enrich himself, a team of lawyers is trying to convince the jury to consider his actions as business as usual in Albany. Mr. Silver is a legendary backroom politician who was described as the most powerful man in Albany. He helped friends, family members and constituents and he is now accused of helping himself to a share of lobbying and lawyer fees paid to law firms with which he was associated.

At trial, a witness described how Mr. Silver lawfully dispensed enormous amounts of money from a fund under his complete control which was secret to the vast majority of the public. Mr. Silver controlled the Health Care Reform Act fund from which he dispensed millions of dollars in grants to people in the health-care field.

Dr. Robert Taub, a leading expert on mesothelioma, which is caused by exposure to asbestos, made it known to Mr. Silver that if the state funded his mesothelioma research, he would refer patients to Silver’s law firm Weitz & Luxenberg. The firm specialized in mesothelioma tort cases, and it and Silver reaped millions in fees from Taub referrals, and Silver sent $500,000 of state money to Taub by way two Health Care Reform Act fund grants.

Dr. Taub testified that he sent some referrals to the Weitz & Luxenberg firm but after he made it known that he wanted to get state grants, a long-time Albany power broker, C. Daniel Chill, a partner at the law firm Graubard Miller, told him that he should send more referrals to Weitz & Luxenberg through Mr. Silver. Mr. Chill helped Dr. Taub draft a letter requesting grant money from the Health Care Reform Act fund. It is no surprise that Dr. Taub got the money he wanted.

Mr. Silver is also accused of using his office to further the lobbying work of childhood friend and lawyer Jay Arthur Goldberg. Mr. Goldberg made a business out of petitioning the government to reduce property taxes on the immense real estate empire of Glenwood Management. If he succeeded the assessed value of the property would be reduced and the lower official value of the properties saved Glenwood millions in real estate taxes. This generated large legal fees for Mr. Goldberg. The business really picked up after Mr. Silver became a consultant for Mr. Goldberg. Goldberg, the government was able to show, gave 25 percent of the fees received to Sheldon Silver.

Michael Hoenig, Glenwood’s chief financial officer, was shown a document which contained a phrase the “division of fees will be made between Jay Arthur Goldberg, P.C. and Sheldon Silver, Esq.” but Hoenig testified that he never saw the document and that he had no idea Sheldon Silver was getting a cut of any lobbying or legal fees paid by Glenwood. The CFO of a multi-billion dollar enterprise was unaware that the speaker of the Assembly was being paid fees by his company!

Ridiculous contentions such as this one may be uttered with a straight face only when corruption is taken for granted and dereliction of duty is accepted by the people. We truly need a new broom to sweep Albany clean.

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