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Followup: A Sheldon Silver-Baruch Singer Connection?

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More information and reaction today following revelations that the U.S. Attorney is looking into “substantial” payments over the past decade made by a small law firm to State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. The New York Times broke the story yesterday and has more details this morning.  The Speaker, who does unspecified work as a private attorney, reportedly did not disclose the source of the payments, as the law requires.

The firm, Goldberg & Iryami, helps property owners, including some on the Lower East Side, lower their property tax payments. Among its clients, the Times reports, is Baruch Singer, who was characterized in the article as “a wealthy landlord with a troubled past who has ties to Mr. Silver.” Singer’s father was the longtime rabbi at Bialystoker Synagogue, where Silver is a lifelong member. According to tax records, Singer has used the law firm “to seek reductions in real estate tax assessments on a number of his buildings on the Lower East Side and in Harlem.”  The story revisits a 16-year-old controversy involving Silver and Singer:

The Assembly speaker sponsored a bill in 1999 that would have allowed Mr. Singer to buy back a building in Harlem that had been seized because he failed to pay taxes on it. Subsequently, Mr. Silver said that the rabbi, Yitzchok Singer, had asked him to help. The rabbi later denied seeking Mr. Silver’s assistance. The bill was never passed. There has been no suggestion that the Harvard-educated Mr. Singer, whose contentious history as a landlord has led to news articles about thousands of violations, is himself under investigation. In a brief telephone interview on Tuesday, he dismissed the published reports, saying, “I happen to be — thank God — one of the best landlords in the city of New York.” Mr. Singer said he was unaware of why Goldberg & Iryami’s payments to Mr. Silver were the focus of a federal investigation, and he lauded the work performed by Jay Arthur Goldberg, who along with his partner, Dara Iryami, operates the firm, which has hundreds of clients. “Please put in that he’s a wonderful human being,” he added of Mr. Goldberg. Mr. Singer dismissed any suggestion that the Assembly speaker had referred him to Mr. Goldberg, 75, who like Mr. Singer, 61, and Mr. Silver, 70, grew up on the Lower East Side. “Definitely not! Definitely not! Definitely not!” he said. “He knows me since I’m in diapers,” he said of the tax lawyer.

According to the article, “a review of court filings and records from the New York City Tax Commission showed a number of properties associated with Mr. Singer that were represented by the firm in recent years. The properties included commercial buildings on Delancey Street on the Lower East Side.” Yesterday, the Times noted that Goldberg & Iryami represents the East River and Hillman Cooperatives. Silver lives in Hillman and is closely associated with Heshy Jacob, the general manager of both complexes.

This morning, Capital takes a look at the latest controversy swirling around the Speaker:

Many times, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s powerful position has seemed to be threatened by scandal. And with grim, plodding regularity, the Lower East Side Democrat has weathered each of them, outlasting four governors, five State Senate leaders and countless other lawmakers who have shuffled along the marble hallway, under the vaulted ceiling and through the glass doors to his office just behind the chamber’s rostrum. He is about to stand for re-election to his 11th term as speaker.

While there’s some grumbling in Albany about Silver, he still enjoys widespread support among Assembly Democrats. More to the point, reporter Jimmy Vielkind explains, federal prosecutors face an uphill battle in making allegations stick:

Even if Silver was taking the money and not detailing it—he recently admitted the $650,000 in outside earnings he listed on his 2013 disclosure form included private law clients in addition to payments from Weitz & Luxenberg, a large plaintiff’s firm—a failure of disclosure is not a federal offense. Lawmakers in Albany took note when former Senate majority leader Joe Bruno was acquitted in May on corruption charges, after prosecutors failed to prove that taking a $20,000-a-month consulting gig from a telecommunications executive who then received state funds actually constituted a bribery scheme. There was no direct link—an email, say, or someone who would testify that they were doing quid in exchange for quo—in that case, and there does not yet appear to be one now. Bruno, it was said during the trial, pointed to Silver as his role model. Indeed, the speaker knows there’s plenty of honest graft to be had, and smart enough to stay on the right side of New York’s porous laws—many of which he helped write.

The Daily News added:

Although Silver’s failure to disclose could pose an ethics violation, legal experts said prosecutors will need to uncover more to bring federal charges.“Mail fraud or similar offenses would generally require some proof of official acts being done in exchange for payments,” said Columbia University Law Professor Daniel Richman. City Tax Commission President Glenn Newman said Silver has not lobbied the commission on behalf of the firm’s clients. The firm handles about 1,000 applications before the commission each year he added.

Sheldon Silver 2013 Disclosure Statement by The Lo-Down

The Wall Street Journal reported that the defunct Moreland Commission had been “looking into the sources of (Silver’s) six-figure outside income” before Governor Cuomo abruptly disbanded the anti-corruption panel in March. U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara has picked up his investigation where the commission left off.  The story noted that Silver was a vocal critic of the state panel, saying in February, “The commission has exceeded its mandate and has been engaged in a fishing expedition to intimidate legislators.” But sources told the Journal that the commission was undeterred in its quest for answers about the Speaker’s outside work:

Commissioners said they tried to find out whether Mr. Silver worked in a law office, actually did work and met with clients. Public records suggest Mr. Silver hasn’t regularly appeared in court for years. The commission subpoenaed Weitz & Luxenberg PC, the New York personal-injury firm where Mr. Silver has long listed himself as “of counsel.” The firm fought the subpoena, members said, and the commission was disbanded before the matter was resolved—disappointing some members who wanted to continue the probe. “When you’re talking about a senior person in the Legislature making that kind of money, you have to know why he’s making it,” said one former Moreland Commission member. “We couldn’t ever really figure it out. So much of it didn’t make sense to us.” Arthur Luxenberg of Weitz & Luxenberg, a friend of Mr. Silver, declined to comment. In the past, he has said Mr. Silver refers fewer than 20 clients a year to the firm. Asked about the investigation, Jay Goldberg of Goldberg & Iryami said there was “nothing illicit” involving Mr. Silver.

Blair Horner the New York Public Interest Research Group called on Silver to explain why he failed to list Goldberg & Iryami on his financial disclosure statements. “The public has a right to know if an elected official has outside business interests that may conflict with their role as a public official,” Horner told the Times. “That’s why the laws are on the books, and anything that undermines that disclosure fuels suspicion.”

Silver has declined to comment.

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