NY Assembly speaker to vacate post amid criminal charges

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Posted: Jan 27, 2015 8:29 PM
NY Assembly speaker to vacate post amid criminal charges

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — Sheldon Silver, the longtime leader of the New York state Assembly, will relinquish the position he has held for 21 years in the wake of federal corruption charges, a top lawmaker announced Tuesday.

The decision announced by Majority Leader Joseph Morelle came after Democratic lawmakers met behind closed doors for two days to discuss their response to the turmoil that has threatened one of the longest careers in American state politics.

"He said to me he will not impede the transition," said Morelle, surrounded by most of the other 105 Assembly Democrats. "We'll have a vacancy on Monday."

As majority leader, the No. 2 post in the chamber, Morelle would be the acting speaker from the moment Silver resigns until the lawmakers formally convene again Monday. At that point, they plan to amend their rules to keep him as interim speaker until Feb. 10.

That's intended to give any other member a chance to express interest and explain how he or she would lead, and make the selection a more open process than it has been in the past, Assemblyman Thomas Abinanti said. "I think what carried the day is we want to enter the budget process united," he added, with a new speaker who has the clear, legitimate backing of the Assembly's two-thirds Democratic majority when he or she goes to negotiate with the governor.

"I will not hinder this process," Silver told reporters later. He declined to respond when asked if he would resign. It is unclear whether Silver would do that or whether his tenure will be formally ended Monday by legislative action. He has said he expects to be exonerated in the criminal case and has no plans to resign his seat in the Assembly.

The 70-year-old Manhattan Democrat was taken into custody last Thursday on federal charges he took nearly $4 million in payoffs and kickbacks, but he insists he is innocent. He has led the Assembly for 21 years — the second-longest tenure of any sitting speaker in the nation.

Members of the Assembly said Silver's criminal charges had become a distraction and a problem for entire chamber.

"There is a strong sense among members it would be best for the speaker to step down and for this body to elect a new speaker," Assembly member Patricia Fahy, D-Albany, said early Tuesday. "There is a lot of hard work ahead to move ahead and unite the body behind a new speaker who can best represent the entire state, champion reforms and restore confidence in the Assembly."

She noted, though, that the chamber and Silver have been instrumental in raising New York's minimum wage, legalizing same-sex marriage, funding prekindergarten and other progressive measures.

Silver had one vocal ally remaining. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, a fellow Democrat, has called Silver "a man of integrity" and said Tuesday that he shouldn't resign. He added that people have to respect the Assembly's decision, but "it's crucially important" that there is leadership that's fair to the city, which often doesn't get its fair share from the state government.

Some legislators also want rules changed to lessen the central power of the speaker's office and seniority system, establish more transparency in how the chamber operates and make decisions and give the chairmen of Assembly committees more authority.

Silver faces five counts, including conspiracy and bribery, and is accused of using his position to obtain millions of dollars in kickbacks masked as legitimate income from two law firms.

There was no clear immediate consensus on Silver's permanent replacement. Morelle, Assemblyman Keith Wright of Harlem and Assemblyman Carl Heastie of the Bronx have all been mentioned as likely candidates. Wright said Tuesday he will seek the position.

"This is the process: You do what you can do to line up support," Wright said.