Ethics Blog

January 28, 2015

Sheldon Silver

I suspect that many, if not most, New Yorkers were shocked at the news of the arrest and charges of corruption of Sheldon Silver, the NY Assembly Speaker in Albany. Some I am sure had a more cynical and sad reaction such as: “What else did you expect, it’s politics.”

Mr. Silver was charged with corruption in accepting millions of dollars in bribes and kickbacks. He declared: “I am confident that after a full hearing and due process, I will be vindicated of these charges.”

Mr. Silver, by most accounts, has served his constituents of the Lower Eastside very well for close to 40 years. He also had an outstanding record as Assembly Speaker for more than 20 years.

He still enjoys the support of the overwhelming majority of lawmakers as well as NYC Mayor de Blasio who said: “Although the charges announced today are certainly very serious, I want to note that I’ve always known Shelly Silver to be a man of integrity.”

It was announced today the he would leave office of Speaker by next Monday but will retain his seat as an Assemblyman.

The U.S. District Attorney, Preet Bharara said something quite different at a news conference after the arrest of Mr. Silver:

“These charges go to the very core of what ails Albany - a lack of transparency, lack of accountability and a lack of principle joined with an overabundance of greed, cronyism and self-dealing.”

Will we ever truly know who is right? Will we ever know the truth?

The popular saying “innocent until proven guilty” is often misunderstood and misused. Attorney and law professor, Basil Tchividjian (my nephew and fellow blogger!) clarifies it when he writes:

“It is critical to remember that “innocent until proven guilty” is a legal term and that just because a person is viewed  under the law as “innocent” does not mean that they did not commit the offense.  It simply means that a jury was unable to unanimously agree that the government was able to prove the crime beyond and to the exclusion of all reasonable doubt.  It means that the defendant will be considered “innocent” under the law and will not lose his freedom.   It does not mean the offense never occurred.”

Did his powerful position lead him to think he was above restrictions? Did the Speaker believe that the fees he collected over the years, as a consultant, were legitimate? Were they?

A jury will decide to convict or exonerate him.

However, whether one is morally (ethically) innocent or guilty is not only a matter of law but also a matter between the person and his or her conscience.

John Cassidy in his January 23, 2015 The New Yorker article After Shelly Silver, It’s Time to Drain the Albany Swamp says: “In Albany, recent history suggests, there’s an endless supply of people who are eager to sell their influence to the highest bidder. What’s needed is a thorough overhaul of a system in which corruption is endemic.”

The story also begs the question whether legislators should even be allowed to collect income from any other sources then from their salaries? In the past 12 years, 41 elected officials have been accused of misdeeds. It seems to me that the present situation creates too many temptations of wrongdoing and also creates the appearance of wrongdoing even if none has occurred. This destroys trust, which is one of the most fundamental values for society to function.

What ethical lesson can we take from this sad story?

I believe it is that we should always be accountable for our actions. Accountability means being able to give an account of or to be able to justify a course of action we have taken, in other words, to be responsible.

As Eleanor Roosevelt once said:

“One’s philosophy is not best expressed in words; it is expressed in the choices one makes… and the choices we make are ultimately our responsibility.”

Emmanuel Tchividjian

SVP-Ethics Officer

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