Sheldon Silver Gets|12 Years for Corruption

     MANHATTAN (CN) — For corruption that “attacks the very heart of our system of government,” former New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver must spend the next 12 years behind bars, a federal judge ruled on Tuesday.
     Silver, 72, must forfeit more than $5 million of the bribes and kickbacks that he received and pay a $1.75 million fine.
     The still-heavy sentence falls short of prosecutors’ request that Silver receive the highest sentence ever dealt to a New York politician, a record still held by his friend, William Boyland Jr., a former Assembly colleague who is only eight months deep into a 14-year prison term.
     With 20 years under his belt as speaker, Silver occupied a higher seat of power than Boyland. His corrupt scheme also lasted longer and reaped higher dividends. But Boyland is nearly 30 years younger than Silver, who is recovering from prostate cancer and received pleas for mercy from roughly 100 people.     
     U.S. District Judge Valerie Caproni said 12 years is enough to “make the next politician hesitate just long enough before taking a bribe or a kickback for his better angels to take over.”
     Or “if there are no other better angels, and for some people there are not, then maybe the fear of living out his golden years in an orange jumpsuit will keep him on the straight and narrow,” she added.
     The sentencing comes just over six months after a federal jury found that Silver made millions through no-show legal work for an asbestos firm and the state’s largest real estate developer.
     “There’s so much money sloshing around government right now that it’s very difficult to have confidence that any decision is being made on the merits,” Caproni said. “That doubt about whether our public servants are operating in our interests or whether their vote is available for purchase to the highest bidder is magnified every time we see another politician exposed as corrupt.”
     With onlookers packed into the ceremonial courtroom and an overflow room, today’s nearly two-hour hearing offered sharply different accounts of Silver’s nearly four-decade-long career.
     For lead prosecutor Carrie Cohen, Silver’s story is one of “enormous, grave, unprecedented corruption.”
     Even the judge acknowledged, however, that the story also involves a “gifted politician.”
     “Some do it better than others, and it’s clear that you did it quite well,” Caproni said.
     Representing lower Manhattan for nearly four decades, Silver won his first election to the legislature he would ultimately lead in 1976.
     Silver touted his work rebuilding a district devastated by the Sept. 11 attacks and Hurricane Sandy, and he burnished a reputation as a champion of tenants’ rights and public health care along the way.
     Mesothelioma-injury cases had long been a fixture of the New York court system, but their numbers spiked after 9/11 because of asbestos that spewed into the atmosphere when the Twin Towers fell.
     In return for lucrative referral fees, Silver supplied the firm Weitz & Luxenberg with patients of Dr. Robert Taub, a Columbia University physician who sought Silver’s help securing state grant money.
     Silver also received tens of thousands of dollars from the state’s largest developer, Glenwood Management, which wanted his support for affordable-housing initiatives.
     Though Silver did not contest that he made millions on largely ceremonial legal work, he denied any quid pro quo during his trial. The jury did not believe his defense, and Silver’s team continued to insist that there was a “lack of discernible harm” caused by his conduct.
     Defense attorney Steven Molo said the mesothelioma patients Silver referred received “excellent” legal representation, and cancer victims benefited from Taub’s research.
     Caproni and the prosecutors rejected this line of defense.
     “I understand the argument, but here’s the thing about corruption,” Caproni said. “It makes the public very cynical.”
     Mesothelioma research may be laudable, but Caproni noted that it is a “very rare” form of cancer and constituents may wonder why funds did not go toward more common illnesses like asthma, diabetes and hypertension.
     “These sorts of doubts end up eroding trust in government, and that, Mr. Silver, is discernible harm,” she said.
     Silver conceded that harm in his own letter to the judge before sentencing.
     “Because of me, the government has been ridiculed,” he wrote. “I let my peers down, I let the people of the state down, and I let down my constituents — the people of lower Manhattan that I live among and fought for. They deserve better.”
     He had little to add to that in the courtroom, betraying little emotion as he told the judge: “I let down my family. I let down my colleagues. I let down my constituents, and I am truly, truly, truly sorry for that.”
     A more somber defense came from the assemblyman’s other defense attorney. Joel Cohen described his client as a “crushed” man whose life of public service had been obliterated by his convictions in the public eye.
     “His obituary has been written about him,” Cohen said.
     In his letter, the Lower East Side Democrat prided himself on having “worked hard to make sure that the Assembly remained the ‘People’s House,'” an edifice that the prosecutor said that he corrupted.
     Defense attorneys meanwhile said the nearly 100 letters in Silver’s support showed the impact of his career.
     Former New York City Mayor David Dinkins described Silver as “a person of integrity.” The Rev. Marcos Rivera, a Lower East Side church pastor, called him “our concerned and effective friend,” and lesser-known letter-writers wrote of an assemblyman working at all hours for people in need of help, whether or not they were constituents.
     “He used his voice to help the little guy, time and time again,” defense attorney Cohen said.
     On the other hand, one of the assemblyman’s many critics, Dr. Suarna Mehulic, wrote that he was fired for blowing the whistle on mismanagement of a hospital “under Sheldon Silver’s protection.”
     After his criminal convictions, Silver lost his attempt to delay his disbarment as an attorney, and he failed to keep the lid on court records describing marital affairs with two women.
     Prosecutors insisted that they wanted to use the information to undercut Silver’s self-portrait as a pious family man, and they saw a whiff of corruption even in the politician’s peccadilloes.
     One of the women “lobbied [Silver] on a regular basis on behalf of clients who had business before the state,” and the second landed a job with a state entity “over which he exercised a particularly high level of control,” court documents say.
     Silver’s attorneys accused prosecutors of trying to tarnish their client with salacious gossip, but the matter did not come up at all during the lengthy sentencing hearing.
     The minor scandal may have prevented Silver’s attorneys from spending too much time around their client’s family life and observant Jewish faith.
     Attorney Cohen, who said he knew Silver for roughly 20 years, alluded to his faith through quotations he attributed to the Psalms (“Love your neighbor as yourself”) and the Talmud (“Don’t judge another man until you reach his place”).
     Outside the court, Silver preached a faith of another sort — the viability of his appeal.
     “I believe in the justice system in this nation, and will pursue all available remedies,” he told a throng of reporters who immediately surrounded him at the court’s side exit.
      Click the links to see the government’s sentencing brief and Silver’s sentencing memo.

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