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NYS Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver Arrested On Corruption Charges

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) -- New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, the top Democrat in the state Legislature, was handcuffed and hauled to court Thursday on charges that he used his office to extort millions of dollars in kickbacks and bribes.

Manhattan U.S. Magistrate Judge Frank Maas released Silver, 70, on $200,000 bail Thursday afternoon following his arrest on five counts, including conspiracy and bribery charges. He was forced to surrender his passport.

If convicted, Silver could face a sentence of up to 100 years in prison.

"Over his decades in office, Speaker Silver has amassed titanic political power," U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said. "But, as alleged, during that same time, Silver also amassed a tremendous personal fortune – through the abuse of that political power."

Bharara said Silver "corruptly collected some $4 million in bribes and kickbacks disguised as 'referral fees'" and said it accounted for "approximately two-thirds of all of Silver's outside income since 2002."

"As today's charges make clear, the show-me-the-money culture of Albany has been perpetuated and promoted at the very top of the political food chain," Bharara said. "And as the charges also show, the greedy art of secret self-reward was practiced with particular cleverness and cynicism by the Speaker himself."

In addition, Bharara said a judge has issued warrants allowing authorities to seize $3.8 million in alleged fraud proceeds that he said Silver had dispersed among eight different bank accounts at six different banks.

Sheldon Silver In Court Sketch
Judge Frank Maas, Attorney Joel Cohen, and Sheldon Silver. (credit: Jane Rosenberg)

As CBS2 Political Reporter Marcia Kramer reported, Silver spoke publicly Thursday afternoon among a pushing and shouting crowd of reporters.

"I'm happy the issue is coming to be aired in the legal process," Silver said. "I am confident that when all the issues are aired I will be vindicated."

Silver said he will not step aside to let someone else take over the legislative chamber, or resign his seat. He will continue to collect his approximately $121,000 salary as speaker.

When asked by CBS2's Dick Brennan if he would be able to function under the cloud of allegations, Silver said, "I believe so."

Meanwhile, Silver's attorney, Joel Cohen, called the charges "meritless."

"Mr. Silver looks forward to responding to them, in court, and ultimately his full exoneration," Cohen said in a statement.

FBI: NYS Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver Arrested

The 35-page complaint against Silver outlined two separate schemes. As 1010 WINS' Juliet Papa reported, one was an alleged real estate scam, in which developers with business before the state were allegedly induced to use a small Lower Manhattan law firm, Goldberg Iryami, which prosecutors claim kicked back part of its fees -- $700,000 worth – to Silver.

The complaint specifically said Silver "used his power and influence" to induce the real estate developers to "retain and continue to use a real estate law firm controlled by an attorney who previously had worked as Silver's counsel in the Assembly."

EXTRA: Click Here To Read The Full Complaint

There was also an alleged health care scam, in which Silver allegedly received more than $5 million in payments from the trial firm of Weitz & Luxenberg. The figure included $3.9 million characterized as attorney referral fees, the complaint said.

Authorities said more than $3 million of that was obtained in "asbestos client referral fees Silver received by, among other official acts, awarding $500,000 in state grants to a university research center of a physician who referred patients made ill by asbestos to Silver at Weitz & Luxenberg."

Silver received more than $6 million in outside income from the two law firms since late 2002, prosecutors alleged.

Silver has publicly insisted that his legal work has no connection to his official position and that none of his clients have business before the state, WCBS 880's Irene Cornell reported.

"Speaker Silver successfully sought ways to monetize his office, and he did so in violation of federal law," Bharara said.

The commission and Bharara were looking into lawmakers' earnings outside their state salaries. Silver's outside income has long been a subject of discussion and controversy. Last year, he reported making up to $750,000 for legal work, mostly with Weitz & Luxenberg.

FBI: NYS Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver Arrested

Bharara took over the files of the Moreland anti-corruption commission after Cuomo closed it in April. He said in October that investigations into Albany's pay-to-play politics are continuing.

When the commission began to investigate public corruption in 2013, including outside income earned by Silver and other state legislators, "Silver took legal action and other steps to prevent the disclosure of such information," the complaint said.

It noted that Silver publicly accused the commission of abusing its power by engaging "in a fishing expedition to intimidate legislators.''

The complaint said Cuomo disbanded the commission in March only after Silver and his staff played a key role in negotiations in which the Legislature agreed to certain changes to campaign finance reporting requirements and bribery laws.

"A deal was cut that cut off the commission's work to the great relief of Sheldon Silver, who furiously fought the commission's subpoenas and urged its shutdown," Bharara said.

The arrest sent shock waves through Albany as a new legislative session has begun and it came just a day after Silver shared the stage with Cuomo during his State of the State address.

Silver has served as speaker of the Democrat-controlled Assembly for more than two decades and is one of the most influential people in New York state government.

Along with the Senate majority leader and the governor, he plays a major role in creating state budgets, laws and policies in a system long-criticized in Albany as "three men in a room.''

Constituents in his Lower East Side district were not surprised to hear about his arrest Thursday morning.

"If they're not honest, they don't need to be in there," Lower East Side resident Billy Rolan told CBS2's Andrea Grymes. "Lock him up."

Traci Davis said she's lived in Silver's district for nine years and would often see him around.

"He's big around here. Everyone respects him," she said. "I'm shocked but then again, I can't be surprised."

Meanwhile, top Democratic lawmakers in New York were standing by Silver on Thursday.

Assembly Majority Leader Joseph Morelle emerged from a closed-door meeting of Democratic lawmakers to say he has faith in Silver, even though he said he hadn't read the criminal complaint against him.

Silver's Future As Assembly Speaker In Question?

As WCBS 880's Rich Lamb reported, Mayor Bill de Blasio said that although the allegations are serious, he has always known Silver to be a man of integrity.

"I think he has a right to due process, that's something we always need to affirm. Allegations are allegations and charges are charges and there has to be a process to determine the outcome," he said.

"I think separately it's a true statement he's done a lot for NYC and I value that certainly," de Blasio added.

When asked if Silver should resign, de Blasio flatly said no.

A small number of Democrats joined Republicans in calling for Silver's resignation as speaker. Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb said Silver's troubles could cast a dark cloud over the Legislature.

NYGOP spokesman David Laska also released a statement calling on Silver to "immediately resign from the State Assembly."

Baruch College Public Affairs Professor Doug Muzzio said Silver will remain speaker unless he's convicted or removed by the Democratic conference.

"By law he can remain until or if he is convicted of a felony," he told WCBS 880. "Does he remain is question one and the other question is what do the members of the Assembly want?"

Silver's arrest comes just two weeks after lawmakers began their 2015 session.

(TM and © Copyright 2015 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2015 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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