Does Ruling on NY’s Silver Start ‘Parade of Horribles’?

Court decisions narrowing the definition of illegal corruption, most recently int he case of former New York Assembly speaker Sheldon Silver, may mean that “politics as usual now seems to encompass personally profiting from horse-trading,” says one expert.

There was a time when political corruption might have been described, as a Supreme Court justice once said of pornography, as something you knew when you saw it. Last summer, after the court overturned the graft conviction of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, it became much harder to define what it meant for a politician to partake in an illegal quid pro quo, the New York Times reports. After that ruling, many prosecutors and government watchdogs expressed anxiety that the court had created a safe harbor for a subtle, wink-and-nod version of corruption. The court had essentially made it legal, critics said, for elected officials to enrich themselves by engaging in unseemly forms of transactional politics. That argument could apply to Sheldon Silver, former speaker of the New York State Assembly, whose corruption conviction was overturned yesterday. It was among the first federal verdicts to be reversed as a result of the McDonnell decision.

While cautioning that Silver may yet be convicted at a retrial, experts said his case had set a precedent that could affect those of other politicians found guilty of corruption, and could also have a chilling effect on new public integrity investigations. “Prosecutors were concerned from the start that the McDonnell decision would allow a lot of reprehensible behavior to go unpunished, and that seems to be precisely what happened here,” said Peter Zeidenberg, a former public corruption prosecutor in Washington, D.C.. “This, indeed, may be the beginning of a parade of horribles.” Both the McDonnell case and another high court ruling in Skilling v. United States may have eroded the definition of corruption to the point where “politics as usual now seems to encompass personally profiting from horse-trading,” said Noah Bookbinder of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.