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Disgraced former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver dies in prison at 77

Former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver speaks to reporters at the State Capitol in this undated photo.
Matt Ryan
New York Now
Former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver speaks to reporters at the State Capitol in this undated photo.

Former New York 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. He was 77.

Silver died Monday, a person familiar with the matter told 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, reinstated New York’s death penalty in 1995. Silver was later accused by supporters of the bill of inserting "poison pill" language that ultimately resulted in the statute being overturned by the state’s highest court.

Silver survived an attempted coup in 2000 on his leadership from Syracuse-area Assemblyman Michael Bragman. For years afterward, he wielded influence in key negotiations on the state’s budget and other policy issues, often giving briefings after closed-door leaders meeting in his distinctive deep, gravelly voice.

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 a partner in government, and is willing to accept ideas from the Legislature,” said Silver, who added government “gridlock” had ended.

The late former speaker was criticized for his handling of sexual harassment charges against former Assemblyman Vito Lopez, and also against a former top aide, who was accused of raping two legislative aides while he was working for the speaker and 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 Assemblyman, but had to leave that post later that year when he was convicted on 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. After losing more appeals, he began serving a 6.5-year prison term in July 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 policies that allowed early release to some medically vulnerable inmates. But after public outcry, he was sent back two days later to the federal prison in Otisville, where he died on Monday.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for the New York Public News Network, composed of a dozen newsrooms across the state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.