How the plan to grant clemency to Sheldon Silver was scuttled

Michael Gormley for Newsday

January 30, 2021

Originally published in Newsday on January 30, 2021.

ALBANY — When President Donald Trump was reported to be considering clemency for former state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver this month, it touched off a political clash played out behind the scenes in Washington and in New York, according to interviews with Democrats and Republicans familiar with the case.

On Jan. 19, the White House had contacted Silver’s wife of more than 40 years, Rosa, at their Lower East Side apartment, according to former Democratic Assemb. Harvey Weisenberg of Long Beach and a current Assembly member who asked not to be identified, both of whom are close to Silver. The Trump administration advised Rosa to prepare to pick up her husband at the Otisville Federal Correctional Institution in Orange County as soon as the next day, Weisenberg and the Assembly member said.

The next morning, on Jan. 20, Silver’s clemency bid was scuttled. It left the 76-year-old Democrat and former power broker now fighting prostate cancer with more than 3 years of his sentence yet to serve on convictions of accepting bribes and money laundering.

"It was heartbreaking for the family, who was led to believe that this was going to work out," said a person close to the Silver family. "An attorney had gotten a call … I do believe it went up to the president, all the way to the president." The person wouldn’t identify the official, but said, "we just refer to it as the White House."

The tense two days began Jan. 18. The New York Times, citing two people briefed on the matter, reported that Trump was considering commuting the 6 ½-year sentence of Silver from a 2018 corruption conviction. The conviction was related to Silver accepting $700,000 in fees from a Manhattan tax law firm for steering cases to it from real estate developers who were seeking Silver’s support for rent-control legislation and in other matters.

Trump had known and worked with Silver for decades in Albany on legislation concerning Trump’s building developments and the state’s approval of casinos. The story was preceded by a Times tweet.

"I went ballistic when I saw that," Buffalo developer Carl Paladino, the 2010 GOP nominee for governor, said of the tweet. Paladino said he sent a message to a Trump ally whom he wouldn’t identify, saying that Silver "was not deserving of a pardon. He was the worst scoundrel to ever work in New York State."

Then came a tweet that surprised many.

"Make no mistake," tweeted the state Republican Party under chairman Nick Langworthy, one of Trump’s most loyal allies. "Disgraced former NYS Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver deserves no clemency or pardon. Silver deserves to actually serve the jail time that he was sentenced for selling the incredible power he yielded to enrich himself. He was a corrupt and dishonest politician."

The message was quickly retweeted more than 1 million times.

"It all happened so quickly," said a person close to Langworthy, noting that after the news broke that Silver was being considered for clemency, Langworthy called a senior White House official "right away."

Langworthy felt he had to convey "the depth of corruption" by Silver and why clemency would be "so problematic," the person said. Langworthy declined to comment.

Silver’s power over 21 years as speaker meant that any substantive legislation had to go through him. He cultivated a reputation as the most intractable of the "three men in a room" with the governor and Senate majority leader needed to approve any significant legislation or state spending.

The Times reported that Trump had spent days with his advisers, including son-in-law Jared Kushner, discussing a list of those who would receive clemency.

Silver has known the Kushner family for years and Silver’s former chief of staff, Judy Rapfogel, worked for Kushner for a time after leaving state government.

Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach), a former federal prosecutor who led the effort when he was in the Assembly that resulted in removing Silver as speaker in 2015, said private attorneys familiar with the latest requests for clemency told him Kushner was "running the operation" to secure clemency for Silver.

Less than 48 hours after Silver’s name was floated on a list of likely clemencies by Trump, he was off the list.

"This whole thing is like a nightmare," said Weisenberg, the former Assembly Democrat who worked with Silver for decades in Albany. "It’s a potential death sentence."

"This is what happens when politics takes over government," Weisenberg said. "If he was a Republican, it wouldn’t have happened."

Weisenberg and other Democrats supported Silver’s clemency to Trump’s representatives. The supporters noted that Silver helped usher in casinos to New York that Trump had sought as a developer, played a critical role in the state’s recovery from the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and worked with Trump on construction projects in Manhattan.

Among the supporters asking the White House to release Silver were lawyers representing the Orthodox Jewish community to which Silver belonged, said a person close to the community.

"The Orthodox community supported Shelly’s consideration for a pardon, that’s for sure," the person said.

For New York Republicans who fought Silver when he was Assembly speaker, the tumultuous two days provided some closure.

"I’m glad it happened," Paladino said. "I’m just very happy justice was served."

Kaminsky handled several clemency requests when he was a prosecutor and said there are legitimate reasons for granting clemency, such as when a prisoner had inadequate counsel or committed a "one-off" crime rather than having conducted a lengthy illegal enterprise. Those cases are handled by professionals in a rigorous process, but Kaminsky said the opposition by New York Republicans circumvented that legal process.

"It was a complete political track," Kaminsky said. "The clemency process is an important process, but when it’s done on a political basis it stinks."