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Mesothelioma Doctor Takes Stand Early Against Silver

MANHATTAN (CN) - A mesothelioma doctor who referred patients to New York State Assemblyman Sheldon Silver's law firm testified these last two days at Silver's corruption trial about the $500,000 in state grants his foundation received.

Though largely supporting the prosecution's case, Robert Taub denied that there was any "explicit" quid pro quo agreement with the former assembly speaker.

Taub, a specialist in mesothelioma who spent more than 30 years at Columbia's medical facility, has been awash in legal troubles ever since being identified as the man who threw the lucrative patient referrals to a law firm where Silver once held a ceremonial position.

When investigators knocked on his door last year, Taub said he denied working with Silver because he was "terrified and panicked," but he agreed to cooperate later because he realized that he had made a "mistake."

The surprise visit that investigators paid Taub on 6 a.m. last summer provided grist for the mill of defense attorneys, who suggested on cross-examination Thursday that the government "tricked" its witness.

Taub said he and his wife had both been sleeping, and his wife had been recovering from surgery.

The doctor said he could not recall whether authorities told him there was a criminal investigation until he realized that his admittedly false statements opened himself up to the prospect of a felony prosecution.

Columbia University fired Taub after his association with Silver came to light, but the doctor was reinstated to his job after suing the hospital this past June.

With this employment lawsuit ongoing, the U.S. government expects Taub to support the majority of charges accusing Silver of accepting nearly $4 million in bribes and kickbacks during his time at Weitz & Luxenberg, a firm specializing in asbestos litigation.

Silver's lead counsel praised Weitz & Luxenberg as trial kicked off Tuesday for setting the "gold standard" in providing victims of asbestos poisoning with a degree of "economic justice." Prosecutors countered that Silver dug into a "gold mine."

In his first appearance on the stand Wednesday, Taub Told jurors that asbestos cases can certainly be a lucrative niche for law firms because claimants typically reap million-dollar settlements from a $20 billion to $30 billion trust funds set aside for victims of this rare and deadly cancer that largely affects blue-collar workers.

For this reason, Taub said that he expected that firms representing mesothelioma victims "should also have a social responsibility to donate some of the profits that they make for research."

"Weitz & Luxenberg was singularly absent from this group," Taub said.

Before they worked professionally, Taub and Silver spent about a decade sporadically interacting at religious events and holidays. Both men practice Orthodox Judaism, and Taub said they saw each other at weddings and Passover ceremonies.

Taub said he pressed Silver in 2003 about having Weitz & Luxenberg support the Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation, where the doctor sat on the board.

"He did not feel he could do it," Taub recalled.

Other sources of funding opened up for Taub's research, however, after Taub started referring patients to Silver's firm.

"I hoped to develop a relationship with him that would help fund mesothelioma research and would help my patients as well," he said. "I knew it would benefit [Silver's] standing in the firm. I didn't know precisely how it could benefit him otherwise."

Originally requesting $1 million in grant money, Taub testified that he applied for a grant from the New York Department of Health, but he presented the application through Silver.

He said that he never interacted with the grantmakers whose names appeared on the award letter granting him $250,000 for two years, and they never asked him to report to them about how he used the money.

Eventually, Silver told him, "I can't do this any more," Taub said.

When Silver later confronted Taub about a decrease in referrals, the doctor told Silver that he started sending his patients to the Simmons Firm, which had pledged more than $3.15 million for mesothelioma research.

Taub's referrals to Silver did not stop entirely, however, and neither did help from Silver, who found Taub's son and daughter employment with a judge and a Jewish charity, respectively.

The Shalom Task Force, an anti-domestic violence charity run by Taub's wife, also received a $25,000 award, evidence showed.

Silver also provided advice when Taub unsuccessfully sought to organize a Miles for Meso race that started near the World Trade Center, in recognition of the tons of asbestos spewed in lower Manhattan after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

In private emails to a foundation colleague, Taub acknowledged that such assistance did not come without a price.

Referring to Silver's help, Taub told another foundation board member in an email: "It will probably cost us. He is very good at getting people to owe him."

During opening arguments, Silver's prosecutors and defense attorneys largely agreed on the facts of the case and drew their battle lines on the question of motive.

Taub, for his part, portrayed his actions as part of his commitment toward those living with a deadly disease.

"I'm put on this earth to help these people," he said. "That's how I feel about it. To do that requires research. That research is very important and it requires funds."

Taub wrapped up his testimony at about 3 p.m. Thursday.

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