MANHATTAN (CN) – The fall of New York Assemblyman Sheldon Silver can be broken down into three words – “Power. Greed. Corruption.” – a federal prosecutor said at the start of the former speaker’s long-awaited trial.
It was a refrain that Assistant U.S. Attorney Carrie Cohen repeated several times more as the lawyers traded heavy blows in opening arguments that stretched roughly two hours.
The charges against Silver brought his two-decade tenure as speaker of the New York State Assembly to an abrupt end earlier this year.
AUSA Cohen told a federal jury today that Silver spent more than a decade of that time “on the take” from two law firms, collecting nearly $4 million from Weitz & Luxenberg alone.
Located just a mile uptown from the courthouse, with personal-injury commercials filling the airwaves for years, Weitz & Luxenberg specializes in cases of mesothelioma, a rare cancer that predominantly afflicts blue-collar workers exposed to asbestos.
Prosecutors say Silver held a no-show job with this firm, to which he steered clients referred by Dr. Robert Taub, whose Columbia University research allegedly benefitted in turn from state grant money.
Another set of charges in Silver’s seven-count indictment accuses him of receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars from the developer Glenwood Management, in exchange for his support of affordable-housing initiatives.
Glenwood ranks as the “No. 1 in political contributions in the entire state,” AUSA Cohen told the jury.
Prosecutors say Silver deposited the money from the asbestos firm and the developer in high-yield investment vehicles not available to the general public, ultimately generating more than $6 million in proceeds.
This allegation gave rise to the final charge of money laundering.
“This is the case of powerful politician who betrayed those he served to line his pockets,” Cohen added.
Silver’s defense attorney, Steven Molo of the firm MoloLamken, noted that the trial was taking place about a baseball’s toss away from Silver’s district in Lower Manhattan.
“Mr. Silver is about as New York as New York gets,” Molo said of his client.
Humanizing his client with tales from his Lower East Side childhood and Yeshiva University education, Molo never denied that Silver accepted the payments that the government considers to be bribes and kickbacks.
Molo likened the perspective prosecutors took of Silver’s actions to looking through “dirty windows.”
The “clean-windows” perspective of the case is one of a New York legislator working to help victims of a deadly cancer find “economic justice” through a firm whose reputation he described as the “gold standard” for asbestos cases, Molo said.
Weitz & Luxenberg has not been accused of wrongdoing in this case.
As for the Glenwood charges, Molo said that Silver’s actions with this developer upheld his reputation as “one of the great, great champions of tenant’s rights” in the Empire State.
Perhaps anticipating this line of defense, prosecutor Cohen urged the jury not to view them as mundane political maneuvering.
“This was not politics as usual,” prosecutor Cohen said. “These were bribes and kickbacks, illegal and criminal conduct.”
Cohen emphasized that Silver shrouded both of the supposedly laudable initiatives in secrecy.
The assemblyman never issued a press release boasting of the grants that he issued to mesothelioma research, and he lobbied to shut down the corruption probe known as the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption, she said.
“The commission never found out,” Cohen continued. “It never learned the truth.”
Over the next four to six weeks, however, the jury will get a chance to penetrate Silver’s “wall of lies and secrets,” she said.
Silver’s attorney Molo blasted Moreland, the now-shuttered investigative committee convened by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, as an act of executive overreach.
Ironically, it was former U.S. Attorney Michael Garcia of the Southern District of New York who helped make the legal arguments that the government exceeded its authority.
The argument placed Garcia in direct opposition to his successor, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, a sharp critic of the culture of corruption in Albany.
Bharara told reporters earlier this year that he was “very confused” as to why the commission suddenly disbanded in March 2014.
Frequent jabs Bharara has made at state politics became grist for the mill of Silver’s defense attorneys, who claimed that their client is being tried in the press.
U.S. District Judge Valerie Caproni has chided both prosecutors and defense attorneys for their rhetoric, and she warned them to tone down their apparent animosity to maintain a professional relationship for a long trial ahead.
Flashes of this tension flared up from time to time, however, at proceedings Tuesday.
At one point, Molo mocked the prosecution’s opening refrain with a cartoonish reprise of the words “greed, power.”
Molo also portrayed the case as a backhanded attack on New York legislative process, which he said allows elected officials to hold part-time jobs and profit from no-show employment.
If “the prosecutors don’t like that system, they can do what democracies do,” he said.
In nearly all criminal cases in the district, prosecutors typically tell jurors to let their common sense guide their judgment, and AUSA Cohen gave this advice toward the end of her remarks.
For Molo, this familiar boilerplate was an invitation for jurors to indulge in stereotypes about legislators.
“Common sense tells us that all politicians are not the most likable people in America,” he said.
Urging the jury to suspend that image, Molo said, “Make no mistake: Mr. Silver did not sell his office.”
Witness testimony began this afternoon with New York State Assemblywoman Amy Paulin, a Democrat living in Scarsdale, N.Y.
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