First, the protégé. Now, the mentor.
For several decades, William “Willie” Rapfogel and Sheldon “Shelly” Silver strode the streets of the Jewish Lower East Side with pride, widely admired as native sons by their community. From the Bialystoker Shul, their spiritual home, to the Grand Street Co-ops to the Orchard Street shopping district to the controversial Seward Park development, Rapfogel and Silver looked out for Jewish interests in the area. And, it turns out, they looked out for their own interests as well, lining their pockets with millions of dollars in cash.
Rapfogel, highly popular and effective as CEO of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty for more than two decades, was sentenced last year to a prison term for stealing $9 million from the charity in an insurance-overpayment kickback scheme. Just last week he was moved to a minimum-security halfway house in Manhattan. He will be eligible for parole in two years.
Silver, his political mentor, appears headed in the other direction and could face a lengthy stay in prison. One of the three most powerful political leaders in the state for more than two decades, he had survived numerous complaints about his strong-armed leadership style, including his failure to act on allegations of ethics violations of fellow Democratic legislators and sexual harassment charges against one of his key aides. But he was found guilty on all seven counts of federal corruption charges on Monday.
He did not testify during his trial and his attorneys called no witnesses in his defense, which was based on the premise that their client’s profiting personally through his position was business as usual in Albany, unethical perhaps but not illegal.
This high-profile come-down, coupled with the current federal corruption case against Republican Dean Skelos, the former Senate majority leader, underscores the sleazy climate in Albany that should lead to major reforms in the political culture.
Silver’s fall is particularly painful for a Jewish community that takes pride in the achievements of its own, heightened by the fact that the Assembly speaker is a highly identified observant Jew, as is Rapfogel. Both American and Jewish law have much to say about abusing power and taking bribes. As a graduate of yeshivas and law school, Silver no doubt can cite chapter and verse from legal and biblical texts on those prohibitions. Now, barred from the state legislature and facing many years in prison, he will have plenty of time to reflect on the sad end of his political career and at what point hubris trumped honesty.