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Former NYS Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver dies in prison at age 77

Former New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, wearing a navy suit, white shirt and burgundy tie.
Former New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver had died in prison at age 77.

Former New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, one of the most powerful figures in state government for two decades before his conviction on corruption charges, has died in federal custody. Silver died Monday at age 77, according to a person familiar with the matter who spoke with the Associated Press.

Silver, an Orthodox Jew whose parents were Russian immigrants, was a native of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. He was elected to the state Assembly in 1977, and as speaker in 1994. He held the post for more than two decades, and at the time was one of the state’s most powerful politicians. He, along with then-Gov. George Pataki in 1995, reinstated New York’s death penalty. Silver was later accused by supporters of the bill of inserting poison pill language that ultimately resulted in the statue being overturned by the state’s highest court.

Silver survived an attempted coup in 2000 on his leadership from Syracuse-area Assemblymember Michael Bragman. For years afterward, he wielded influence in key negotiations on the state’s budget and other policy issues. He spoke with public radio and television in 2011 about how he had forged a successful relationship with then newly-elected Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

“We work with a governor who recognizes that the Legislature is partner in government, and is willing to accept ideas from the Legislature,” said Silver, who said government “gridlock” had ended.

The late former speaker was criticized for his handling of sexual harassment charges against former Assemblymember Vito Lopez, and also against a former top aide to the speaker, who was accused of raping two legislative aides while he was working for the speaker, and who eventually pleaded guilty to sexual misconduct.

Silver fell from grace in 2015, when he was arrested on federal corruption charges by the U.S. attorney of the southern district of New York. He resigned from the speaker’s post.

“I had the speaker’s chair for over 20 years, I think I accomplished a lot,” Silver told reporters. “I think it’s time that a younger person takes over and does the job.”

Silver remained an assemblymember, but had to leave that post later that year when he was convicted of multiple felony charges for illegally netting $4 million for engineering bribery and kickback schemes. They involved a real estate company, a tax firm, and a Columbia University doctor who recommended cancer cases to a law firm where Silver was a partner. The former speaker saw the charges overturned on appeal, but was convicted in a retrial in 2018, and after losing more appeals, began serving a six-and-a-half year prison term in July of 2020. He also had to pay a $1 million fine.

Silver, who was suffering from cancer, was briefly released to his home in May 2021 under provisions of a pandemic-related federal policy that allowed early release to some medically vulnerable inmates. But after public outcry, he was sent back to the federal prison in Otisville two days later, where he died on Monday.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.