Ithaca, N.Y. — The editorial boards of The New York Times, The Syracuse Post-Standard, The NY Daily News and other publications have called on NY Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver to resign after he was charged Thursday with orchestrating a corruption and bribery scheme.

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Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton, however, said she is not ready to say the speaker should leave his post.

In an interview on Friday, the Ithaca area’s representative in Albany said that the embattled speaker must be given the presumption of innocence and that she hadn’t made up her mind about whether Silver should step down.

“I’m shocked that editorial boards say the speaker should resign,” Lifton said. “We don’t have enough information.”

Lifton said she’s long seen Silver as an important leader instrumental in a number of important public policy fights she held dear, including those over fracking and electoral reform.

“I don’t like a rush to judgement based on newspaper articles or what a prosecutor does,” Lifton said.

She also said in a statement: “I know nothing about (Silver’s) private law practice and have no information about the allegations the US Attorney is making. I am not yet prepared to make a judgment call on the matter, but I’m looking very carefully at the information that is available, and will make up my mind about the matter when I have enough information to do so.”

Lifton at a meeting earlier this month

Silver charged

Silver, 70, has been speaker of the New York State Assembly — and arguably one of the most powerful men in the state — since 1994.

This week, however, that long reign may have come crashing to an end. In announcing the charges, prosecutors detailed what they called a massive bribery and kickback scheme involving millions of dollars.

Here’s how it worked, according to U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara:

— Speaker Silver convinced a physician to refer asbestos cases to his law firm, Weitz and Luxenberg.

— Silver steered state funding to the physician.

“New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver reaped millions of dollars in kickbacks in a 15-year conspiracy,” Bloomberg News reported. Silver’s annual government salary is $121,000.

A chorus of voices calling for Silver’s resignation has not extended to all members of the state assembly’s Democratic caucus. In fact, most appear to be standing by the speaker.

“We have every confidence that the speaker is going to continue to fulfill his role with distinction,” Rochester Assemblyman Joe Morelle said, according to the Syracuse Post-Standard.

Silver, center

The backlash

That viewpoint runs contrary not only to Republicans in the state, but the editorial boards of New York’s leading newspapers, which (to our knowledge) have uniformly condemned the speaker.

Here’s the language from The Times’ editorial today:

As astonishing as it was to see Sheldon Silver, the speaker of the New York Assembly, surrender to the F.B.I. on corruption charges Thursday morning, it is even more incredible that he can choose to go on serving in his job …

In New York’s sleazy political world, where fairly obvious corruption is not just tolerated but encouraged by ethics laws that barely deserve the name, Mr. Silver does not have to relinquish his power even temporarily. That, in fact, is something he should have done two years ago after the disclosure of his role in silencing a sexual harassment complaint against another lawmaker.

It should go without saying that Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver — charged Thursday with taking millions of dollars in graft — must resign from that job. He’s politically crippled, ethically bankrupt and supremely unfit to lead.

And the Daily News:

Sheldon Silver must step down as Assembly speaker — or be ousted from the post that makes him New York’s second-most-powerful elected official.

The Assembly’s Democratic majority has a fleeting chance to avert disgrace by refusing to allow Silver to lead their house while charged with federal felonies. Don’t hold your breath.

After years of enabling his corruption, playing along with a system that put everything up for sale and excusing gross misconduct, the Democrats are standing with the strongman at whose knee they have worshipped.

Lifton’s reaction

Assemblywoman Lifton did not stand with a group of Democratic lawmakers who gathered this week to announce their support for Silver.

But she hasn’t said he should immediately resign his post, either, citing the need to see more information. She said she’s seen the state’s editorial boards be proven wrong in the past.

“The editorial boards have been wrong on a number of issues; I’ve seen it too many times,” she said.

“There are areas I want to fully understand before I make my own judgement call on this.”

But what about the United States government?

“Prosecutors aren’t always right, so I’m going to (undertake) independent research based on my knowledge of the speaker … and decide whether it’s necessary for him to step down at least temporarily while these things get sorted out,” she said.

Lifton said Silver’s leadership could be particularly important as the state moves to debate a looming budget battle. She cited 13 years of working with Silver and seeing him work for positive change.

“Of course the speaker’s a friend. He’s been a big supporter on a lot of issues I care about and done tremendously on fracking and support for teachers,” she said.

Asked whether her personal relationship with Silver could be interfering with her judgement, Lifton admitted that she faced a difficult decision.

“It’s not easy,” she said. “The speaker’s my colleague — we don’t go to dinner together, but he’s a leader that I’ve respected and had a close working relationship with.”

“It’s going to be a tough decision either way … I will make the decision that I think is best for my constituents.”


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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.