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NYSNYS NEWS: After week when Assembly is compared to a cesspool and worse, members on track to elect success to Speaker Sheldon Silver. Little known Bronx member Heastie favored to win.
NYSNYS NEWS: After week when Assembly is compared to a cesspool and worse, members on track to elect success to Speaker Sheldon Silver. Little known Bronx member Heastie favored to win.

By Kyle Hughes

ALBANY, N.Y. (January 30) You know you're not having a good week when your public life is compared to a cesspool, the Cosa Nostra and carrion being picked over by vultures.

Those were some of the words used in recent days to describe the state Assembly, which is the middle of one of the worst scandals to occur in New York's modern history, the arrest of Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) on federal charges of taking millions in bribes and kickbacks.

Next week will bring more drama, with legislators expecting to see Silver step down Monday from the post he has held since 1994 and a successor voted in, possibly on Tuesday. Little known Bronx Assembly member Carl Heastie, who drew the carrion and vulture comparison in a New York Daily News editorial, appeared Friday to have lined up the 76 votes needed to win the job. Assembly Education Chair Cathy Nolan (D-Queens) is the other candidate in the race.

Good government groups are upset, both by the crimes alleged in Silver's case and the possibility the Assembly will not make any changes to an authoritarian structure that was laid bare by this week's extraordinary events. Silver's power was such that Assembly Democrats appeared virtually paralyzed following the arrest, fearful of taking any action or expressing any thought that would bring down Silver's wrath if he was able to hang on to the speaker's post.

"It should be clear to everybody not just in the Assembly but to everyone in the state we need some serious reform," Lawrence Norden of the Democracy Program at NYU's Brennan Center for Justice said Friday. For two decades Silver "consolidated power and crushed dissent" and the end result was a federal indictment laying out more than a decade of corrupt payoffs and distribution of state funds, he said.

Friday, Susan Lerner of Common Cause said the process of replacing Silver "should have been a more open one and this is a missed opportunity if indeed they vote on Tuesday without any other public statements (on reform)."

She was one of the signers to a letter calling on the Assembly to hold a public forum for candidates for speaker. They cited as precedent the public hearings held in 2007, when the Legislature had fill the vacancy created by the felony conviction of state Comptroller Alan Hevesi on another set of corruption charges.

"Backroom dealing and secrecy undermine public confidence and breed public cynicism and apathy," the letter reads. "Public confidence in the Legislature is a cornerstone of public support for lawmaking, and public distrust of the legislative process erodes democracy. Setting a more open process and offering a public forum for candidates for Speaker is important in helping to build public trust in the Assembly, an especially important public interest given the circumstances under which the Speaker vacancy has arisen and the situation in which the Assembly currently finds itself."

Lerner said the process of replacing Silver "is taking place entirely behind closed doors," but she said she is not giving up on the hope that change will come.

The groups are planning a Monday press conference to layout their prescription for change in the Legislature, which the Brennan Center memorably termed broken and dysfunctional in a report that made national headlines when it came out in 2004.

"It appears the speaker's race is over," Blair Horner of NYPIRG said Friday. "Even though we're disappointed there was no public process there we are moving on and looking at what needs to be do to open up the Assembly and the Legislature as far as rule changes."

Assembly member Jim Tedisco (R-Glenville), a former minority leader, said one of the most objectionable things he heard during a week of upheaval was the assertion that no one other than a New York City resident is entitled to be speaker.

"I'm just surprised at the level of outward and unabashed discrimination Nobody should be thinking that let alone saying that," Tedisco said. The speaker is one of Albany's vaunted "three men in room" who make all the decisions about government, with the other two the governor and the Senate leader.

The week saw trouble in the state Senate, which returned this month to Republican control after two years when it was under control of a majority coalition that included breakaway Democrats.

WNBC in New York reported Thursday that Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Nassau County is also under investigation by the U.S. Attorney's office in New York City, for both the sources of his outside income and his ties to the New York City real estate industry. In 2011, Skelos said the law firm he works part time for represents clients with business before the state, but he doesn't personally take on clients.

Skelos's office dismissed the report.

"Last night's thinly-sourced report by WNBC is irresponsible, and does not meet the standards of serious journalism," Senate press secretary Kelly Cummings said. "Senator Skelos has not been contacted by anyone from the U.S. Attorney's Office. As such, we won't be commenting further."

If Skelos is in legal jeopardy, it will only worsen the breakdown that has overtaken the Legislature and state government this year.

Beside the Silver arrest, Gov. Andrew Cuomo faces a probe led by prosecutor Preet Bharara into his sudden move to close down the Moreland investigation of Albany corruption last spring. In December, he used $100,000 in campaign funds to hire Elkan Abramowitz, a well known white collar criminal defense lawyer

In the Senate, Skelos' top deputy Sen. Tom Libous (R-Binghamton) is under indictment for lying to the FBI about his actions in a corruption case involving his son. Matthew Libous, a lawyer, faces prison and disbarment after being convicted in federal court this week on felony tax evasion charges. A trial date has not yet been set for his father.