There’s an old saying in politics: Never write what you can say; never say what you can wink.
It’s good advice. Politics is largely the art of horse trading, and what can seem quite normal unsaid can appear downright larcenous spelled out in ink, or on an FBI videotape.
I’m no lawyer, but I assume that’s the gist of what former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) will argue in his corruption trial in federal court beginning this week. I do favors for people all the time; I can’t control what favors they do for me.
The same will go for former state Senate Majority leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre), whose trial begins later in the month. It seems like it would be a bit tougher for Skelos, though, because both he and his son, Adam, appear to have forgotten the adage about talking unnecessarily. Federal investigators say the Skeloses spelled things out on the phone that are larcenous, indeed, with Adam apparently bragging to his father on FBI wiretap that he was talking on a “burner” phone.
There are a lot worse people in the world than Dean Skelos and Shelly Silver. Skelos was always an affable, if parochial politician who appears to have gotten careless and blinded by familial woes. Silver was a far shrewder politician and conference leader who mastered the perennial art of saying “no” and waiting for petitioners, including Skelos, to come begging.
Silver was a patient negotiator who understood the value of the hand he was dealt. Skelos was the consummate old-boys-club loyalist who eventually got rewarded with the senate leadership role. Both lived in the opaque, triple reinforced, hermetically sealed bubble called Albany.
Others living in that bubble now will be watching these trials intently, logically reassessing what used to be considered business-as-usual in state government. They’ll think twice before horse trading a bill or floating a niece’s resume to the lobbyist of a firm whose partner’s wife is senior vice president at a trade group that happens to have legislation stuck in committee — or whatever.
But what won’t change — what won’t be broken in Albany — is the seamless web of connections between political, government, business and labor players. Those relationships are as natural as they are all-encompassing. Everyone in Albany is two phone calls away, and not even the Justice Department can change that.
It’s hard to know if U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara is going to clean up Albany in the long run. But one thing is clear: There’s sure going to be a lot more winking going on in the hallways of the state capitol next year.
William F. B. O’Reilly is a Republican consultant.