Silver instead crafted a secret $103,000 private settlement with public money for the women, breaking Assembly policy. The settlement was masked in state records as "legal services." The deal gagged the women by a confidentiality clause carrying a $10,000 penalty. Lawmakers' chief concern wasn't those young women, Special Prosecutor Daniel Donovan concluded last month, but "mitigating the Assembly's damage."
It was scathing criticism, especially coming at the end of a string of sex scandals that had put restrictions on the lawmakers' internship program and led to the 2003 conviction of Silver's counsel, Michael Boxley, for sexual misconduct.
From the outside, it appears Silver, 69, has weathered this greatest threat to his 19-year tenure. But inside the fractious Democratic conference, where Silver continues to have support, the issue has been far more intense and the outcome unclear.
One thing is certain: The issue has humbled and weakened Albany's longest tenured leader and lingers as a threat to Silver's leadership.
"Shelly is on tenterhooks," said Michael Benjamin, a former Democratic assemblyman who served with Silver and now a political commentator. "Shelly is an aging lion who has protected his pride. But the younger lions see a vulnerability. Whether Shelly likes it or not, there are younger lions in waiting and talking."
There is serious concern among current lawmakers.
"It's never over," said one veteran Democratic assemblyman, one of several men and women in the conference who would speak only on the condition of anonymity because closed-door discussions aren't supposed to be revealed and because legislative leaders control resources and legislation and can end careers.
He said that although no leader would be removed during the legislative session because it would create chaos, Democrats will have time after the session ends June 20 to talk to colleagues and constituents about Silver's future.
Silver overcame one big hurdle over the long Memorial Day weekend: Democrats said they heard no outrage about the scandal in their annual return to their districts for parades and speeches.
But as Republican Assembly members noted last week in calling for Silver's resignation as speaker, Democrats will have to decide if they want to face voters in the 2014 elections as supporters of Silver.
After two investigative reports on May 15, Donovan's and another by the state ethics board, Democrats focused their public criticism on Vito Lopez, the assemblyman accused of harassment. But behind closed doors, Democrats endured tense days as they waited to see what women in the conference would do in reaction to Silver's role, said a second assemblyman. The Democratic women are a critical bloc for Silver, and women's rights are a major issue for the Democratic conference. Public opposition by women could force a no-confidence vote for Silver.
"But when the war came, we were together," the second assemblyman said.
The Democratic female members are one of many factions that divide the Assembly, which makes Silver's job as leader tougher, but also makes it more difficult for anyone to gain enough support to challenge him. And there is no clear successor.
Asked Thursday if the issue was behind him, Silver said, "I don't know the issue."
He said he's focused on passing an economic development proposal, helping local governments in distress, and getting the Senate to support Assembly bills for a Dream Act to provide college aid to illegal immigrants, among other issues.
He gave a direct "yes" when asked whether he is confident he has the support of his members.
"There is nothing new today that wasn't there a year ago or eight months ago and it was dealt with," said Silver.
On Thursday, Silver hosted a breakfast meeting with female Democrats. For more than an hour behind closed doors, the deep, lingering concern over Silver's admitted mishandling of the case became clear.
It was a rare mistake.
For decade he's been "the sphinx," or Yoda, for outmaneuvering governors and senators to win progressive goals including pre-kindergarten, ending Rockefeller era drug laws' long, mandatory sentences; and legalizing gay marriage. This year, he delivered a higher minimum wage and redistricting, which protects Democrats' power in elections for the next decade. Democrats say that without Silver in charge, the Assembly would be chaotic.
But Silver, who championed women's rights, hasn't been himself since the scandal broke. He took full blame for mistakes during a remarkable May 20 public apology, which several assemblywomen said went a long way to blunt their anger.
Silver's leadership role may also be saved in part by the transactional nature of Albany he's mastered.
"Getting stuff done is more important," said one Democratic assemblywoman.
For example, the women say their newfound clout appears to have derailed a growing effort to legalize mixed-martial arts fighting in New York, a sport they find brutal and sexist.
"That's the political, transactional game up here," said Democratic Assemblywoman Inez Barron, the only female Democrat to publicly call on Silver to step down. "It's, 'Let's make a deal.'"
Still, there are weeks left in the session that has seen not only the sexual harassment scandal, but also an FBI investigation into corruption in which an assemblyman wore a wire. And Silver continues to be in charge.
"We're all now waiting for someone to do something stupid," the second assemblyman said sadly, "because he'll be blamed for it."