MANHATTAN (CN) – The corruption retrial of former New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver kicked off Monday under a shroud of deja vu, with a federal prosecutor emphasizing the clout of the fallen political heavyweight with immensely lucrative side jobs.
“For two decades, this man Sheldon Silver was one of the most powerful politicians in all of New York,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Damian Williams said.
“Because of that power, he was practically untouchable,” Williams added later. “He was also corrupt.”
Toppled from his 21-year reign over the New York Legislature, a year shy of the record, Silver was charged in 2015 with soliciting $5 million in bribes through two no-show jobs at law firms. His case is seen by many as the test of federal anti-corruption laws in the wake of a controversial Supreme Court ruling.
“He told lie after lie,” Williams said this morning in his opening statement. “He kept secret after secret about how he made his money.”
How Silver supplemented his income as a legislator is mostly undisputed.
Holding a ceremonial position on the New York-based asbestos firm Weitz & Luxenberg, Silver steered mesothelioma patients to the firm referred to him by Columbia University physician Robert Taub.
Depicting Taub as Silver’s “golden goose,” Williams said that the politician steered state money to the doctor as part of a corrupt arrangement.
Three years older and recovering from a recent hospitalization, Taub took the stand late on Monday to narrate a similar story to the one he told years ago with his voice slightly hoarser. The doctor told the jury that Silver’s close friend Daniel Chill introduced him to the politician, setting the plan in motion.
But Silver’s defense attorney told the jury Monday that such a relationship, while unseemly, was not illegal.
“Is it possible you might think that Shelly Silver had a conflict of interest? It’s possible,” Michael Feldberg said.
“Distasteful is not criminal,” he emphasized later.
Though Silver was convicted of seven counts of fraud, extortion and money laundering after his first trial, the Second Circuit vacated that verdict last year because the Supreme Court’s handling of a different case dramatically reshaped federal anti-corruption law.
In 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously overturned the convictions of Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell, effectively making it legal to pay for political access, so long as the public servant does not perform a favor in return.
Citing this precedent in Silver’s appeal, the Second Circuit found the instructions given to the first jury to be obsolete.
Neither the prosecutor or the defense attorneys explicitly mentioned the McDonnell decision in their opening statements Monday, meanwhile, leaving the interpretation of the law to presiding U.S. District Judge Valerie Caproni.
Even witness testimony in the two trials began in nearly identical fashion, with New York Assemblywoman Amy Paulin informing jurors of the how government in Albany works.
Silver’s prosecution began a spate of high-profile corruption cases by ex-U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, whose indictments of the leaders of the New York Legislature and Governor Andrew Cuomo’s top deputy had been dubbed “Albany on Trial.”
Together with the governor, Paulin noted, the New York’s assembly speaker and senate majority leader have been known as the “three men in a room.”