Commentary Magazine


Topic: Preet Bharara

New York’s One Party State and Corruption

The arrest today of Sheldon Silver, the speaker of New York’s State Assembly, on federal corruption charges created what could well be described as an earthquake in New York politics. Silver has ruled over the state’s lower house for 20 years and wielded great power in Albany. But his fall from grace is about more than the tale of one crooked politician and the crumbling network of legal, political, and social service connections that he presided over. Accused grafters like Shelly Silver can be found throughout our nation’s political history and, indeed, that of any democratic country. Crooks like him are a dime a dozen. But what made him significant was not just his venality and fast and loose approach to ethics. He was dangerous because his decades of thievery were enabled by a political culture that treated such things as being of no consequence.

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The arrest today of Sheldon Silver, the speaker of New York’s State Assembly, on federal corruption charges created what could well be described as an earthquake in New York politics. Silver has ruled over the state’s lower house for 20 years and wielded great power in Albany. But his fall from grace is about more than the tale of one crooked politician and the crumbling network of legal, political, and social service connections that he presided over. Accused grafters like Shelly Silver can be found throughout our nation’s political history and, indeed, that of any democratic country. Crooks like him are a dime a dozen. But what made him significant was not just his venality and fast and loose approach to ethics. He was dangerous because his decades of thievery were enabled by a political culture that treated such things as being of no consequence.

That Silver is accused of raking in millions in bribes and kickbacks from those doing business with the state does not come as a great shock to those who have followed his career. His rise from an undistinguished lawyer and local political hack with close ties to Heshy Jacob—a prominent povertician on Manhattan’s Lower East Side—to a political giant brought him great wealth and far-reaching influence within the state’s business, legal, and political worlds. Moreover the sentencing last year of William Rapfogel, the husband of Silver’s chief of staff Judy Rapfogel, on charges relating to the looting of one of the city’s leading Jewish social welfare agencies made it impossible to avoid the possibility that the thread of corruption would eventually lead to the uncovering of even greater crimes by the speaker of the Assembly.

Silver’s shakedowns poured millions into the coffers of law firms with which he was associated but they were also ill concealed. How a part-time lawyer (members of the New York legislature work part time and, unlike members of Congress, may be active in the legal profession) that did not appear to work on any cases could become a wealthy partner in a law firm specializing in personal injury cases was a mystery that was always treated as one to which the answer was known to any politically aware person in New York City or Albany.

But somehow this open secret was never considered worth looking into by legal authorities. Neither crusading state attorney generals like Eliot Spitzer or Andrew Cuomo (both of whom used that office as a stepping stone to the governorship) or tough guy district attorneys ever managed to find the time or the resources to pursue Silver. Why would they when doing so when put them in opposition to a powerful man who could make their political lives miserable? In the go-along-to-get-along world of New York politics, picking a fight with Shelly was never a good business proposition. In the end, it took a federal prosecutor to unravel this tawdry case.

But instead of just cheering the determination of U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, it is also an apt moment to think back on a political tempest that came and went with no political repercussions last year.

It should be recalled that Governor Cuomo belatedly responded to concerns about Albany’s tradition of thievery by creating a special panel known as the Moreland Commission to root out corruption. But as soon as it started to make some noises about actually doing just that—as opposed to merely talking about it as almost all past anti-corruption efforts had done—Cuomo disbanded it, as Bharara said, “to the great relief” of Silver. But a culture of tolerance for corruption—something that Silver used to his advantage for years—ensured that the governor suffered no political consequences for this outrageous act. Silver made deals with Albany Republicans who made no trouble for him. But in a one-party state like New York, the usual checks and balances of a democracy in which a credible opposition can make the party in power pay for its sins simply don’t exist.

That is why as troubling as the tale of Silver’s alleged misdeeds may be, unless accountability is brought into the picture it is a given that there will be more Shelly Silvers in New York’s future. A leviathan-like state government such as the one that operates in New York is awash in money and contracts that are an open invitation to looters and grafters. But until the state’s political culture becomes one where indifference to corruption can bring a new party and reform to power, criminals will continue to prosper at the taxpayers’ expense.

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Why Shouldn’t Holder Be Fired?

Some of us suspected that the Obama team would find a reason to pull the plug on the KSM trial as it became increasingly apparent how unworkable and dangerous a public trial of a jihadist was. Few suspected that the entire stunt would collapse so quickly. But it has. The New York Times reports:

The Obama administration on Friday gave up on its plan to try the Sept. 11 plotters in Lower Manhattan, bowing to almost unanimous pressure from New York officials and business leaders to move the terrorism trial elsewhere.

“I think I can acknowledge the obvious,” an administration official said. “We’re considering other options.”

How did we get from there to here so quickly? The Times explains:

The story of how prominent New York officials seemed to have so quickly moved from a kind of “bring it on” bravado to an “anywhere but here” involves many factors, including a new anxiety about terrorism after the attempted airliner bombing on Christmas Day.

Ultimately, it appears, New York officials could not tolerate ceding much of the city to a set of trials that could last for years.

But something else, I suspect, more fundamental has occurred. The entire premise of the Obama anti-terrorism approach, which entailed  a willful ignorance on the nature of our enemy, a cavalier indifference to the concerns of ordinary Americans (be they 9/11 families or New York tax payers), and a headlong plunge into uncharted legal terrain has evaporated in the wake of the Christmas Day bomber and the general perception that the Obama team has not a clue what they are doing. The public is no longer willing to accept it on faith that the Obami know best. To the contrary, the illusion of competence has been shattered. Elected leaders are now willing to stand up and say what we all knew to be true. As Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University quoted by the Times, observes, “This will be one more stroke for al-Qaeda’s propaganda.” And a nightmare for New York.

The question remains as the White House scramble for Plan B: what is Eric Holder still doing there? It was he, the president tells us, who came up with this scheme. (His Department also implemented the “Mirandize the terrorist” policy.) It appears as though Holder exercised no due diligence (just as there had been none exercised prior to the announcement to close Guantanamo):

Mr. Holder called Mr. Bloomberg and Gov. David A. Paterson only a few hours before his public announcement on Nov. 13; and Mr. Kelly got a similar call that morning from Preet Bharara, the United States attorney in Manhattan, whose office had been picked to prosecute the cases.

But by the time those calls were made, the decision had already been reported in the news media, which was how Mr. Bloomberg learned about it, according to mayoral aides.

One senior Bloomberg official, speaking on condition of anonymity so as not to antagonize the White House, said: “When Holder was making the decision he didn’t call Ray Kelly and say, ‘What do you think?’ He didn’t call the mayor and say, ‘What would your position be?’ They didn’t reach out until it got out there.”

There seems to have been, aside from the lack of any reasoned legal judgment, no basic political groundwork laid for this momentous decision. Had we not grown accustomed to the jaw-dropping incompetence of the Obami, this would be stunning. Now, it frankly seems to be par for the course.

Two things are clear from all of this. First, the administration’s critics have been vindicated. And second, those who came up with this harebrained scheme, including but not limited to Holder, should be canned. The president isn’t fond of firing anyone, but if ever there was a time to show that the president really does possess some rudimentary executive skills, this is it. Otherwise, the public will assume that bungling through one national-security issue after another is simply business as usual in the Obama administration.

Some of us suspected that the Obama team would find a reason to pull the plug on the KSM trial as it became increasingly apparent how unworkable and dangerous a public trial of a jihadist was. Few suspected that the entire stunt would collapse so quickly. But it has. The New York Times reports:

The Obama administration on Friday gave up on its plan to try the Sept. 11 plotters in Lower Manhattan, bowing to almost unanimous pressure from New York officials and business leaders to move the terrorism trial elsewhere.

“I think I can acknowledge the obvious,” an administration official said. “We’re considering other options.”

How did we get from there to here so quickly? The Times explains:

The story of how prominent New York officials seemed to have so quickly moved from a kind of “bring it on” bravado to an “anywhere but here” involves many factors, including a new anxiety about terrorism after the attempted airliner bombing on Christmas Day.

Ultimately, it appears, New York officials could not tolerate ceding much of the city to a set of trials that could last for years.

But something else, I suspect, more fundamental has occurred. The entire premise of the Obama anti-terrorism approach, which entailed  a willful ignorance on the nature of our enemy, a cavalier indifference to the concerns of ordinary Americans (be they 9/11 families or New York tax payers), and a headlong plunge into uncharted legal terrain has evaporated in the wake of the Christmas Day bomber and the general perception that the Obama team has not a clue what they are doing. The public is no longer willing to accept it on faith that the Obami know best. To the contrary, the illusion of competence has been shattered. Elected leaders are now willing to stand up and say what we all knew to be true. As Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University quoted by the Times, observes, “This will be one more stroke for al-Qaeda’s propaganda.” And a nightmare for New York.

The question remains as the White House scramble for Plan B: what is Eric Holder still doing there? It was he, the president tells us, who came up with this scheme. (His Department also implemented the “Mirandize the terrorist” policy.) It appears as though Holder exercised no due diligence (just as there had been none exercised prior to the announcement to close Guantanamo):

Mr. Holder called Mr. Bloomberg and Gov. David A. Paterson only a few hours before his public announcement on Nov. 13; and Mr. Kelly got a similar call that morning from Preet Bharara, the United States attorney in Manhattan, whose office had been picked to prosecute the cases.

But by the time those calls were made, the decision had already been reported in the news media, which was how Mr. Bloomberg learned about it, according to mayoral aides.

One senior Bloomberg official, speaking on condition of anonymity so as not to antagonize the White House, said: “When Holder was making the decision he didn’t call Ray Kelly and say, ‘What do you think?’ He didn’t call the mayor and say, ‘What would your position be?’ They didn’t reach out until it got out there.”

There seems to have been, aside from the lack of any reasoned legal judgment, no basic political groundwork laid for this momentous decision. Had we not grown accustomed to the jaw-dropping incompetence of the Obami, this would be stunning. Now, it frankly seems to be par for the course.

Two things are clear from all of this. First, the administration’s critics have been vindicated. And second, those who came up with this harebrained scheme, including but not limited to Holder, should be canned. The president isn’t fond of firing anyone, but if ever there was a time to show that the president really does possess some rudimentary executive skills, this is it. Otherwise, the public will assume that bungling through one national-security issue after another is simply business as usual in the Obama administration.

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