MANHATTAN (CN) – With three small words, a federal prosecutor summed up his view of how former New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver used his clout to extort millions in bribes.
“Shelly wants cases,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Tatiana Martins told a federal jury on Thursday morning.
Martins had attributed these words at the start of her closing arguments to Silver’s friend Daniel Chill. The cases referred to mesothelioma patients Silver could refer to a law firm in exchange for more than $3.1 million in finder’s fees.
“This is bribery,” Martins thundered some three hours later in her closing. “This is extortion. This is corruption, the real thing. Don’t let it stand.”
Whether a federal jury agrees a second time could determine the health of a federal anti-corruption law weakened by the Supreme Court’s decision in McDonnell v. Virginia, which effectively legalized paying for political access.
That decision toppled Silver’s first convictions for honest-services fraud and extortion, paving the way for a retrial that whizzed by over the past two weeks. Prosecutors had originally anticipated Silver’s retrial would take double or triple that period of time.
For New York’s honest-government watchdog, and the 74-year-old Silver, its outcome could have profound implications.
The watchdogs fear that an acquittal will declare open season on bribery in a state with more corruption cases than any other. And for Silver, the jury’s ruling could be a matter of life and death.
Presiding U.S. District Judge Valerie Caproni originally sentenced the septuagenarian to 12 years in prison.
The basic facts of the case are undisputed, but Silver’s attorney Michael Feldberg focused the defense’s closing Thursday on three words he says are in dispute.
“Every witness in a position to know,” Feldberg said, “denies that there was a quid pro quo, denies that there was a bribe.”
“Unlike the prosecutors,” Feldberg added, “we want you to believe them.”
Silver held an “of counsel” position at the law firm Weitz & Luxenberg, which specializes in asbestos cases.
The only work Silver performed for the firm involved steering it patients who had been referred to him by Columbia University physician Robert Taub, the government’s star cooperating witness.
By his own testimony, Feldberg said, Taub never spoke to Silver about state funding for his research. Taub praised the firm as a leader in asbestos litigation.
Weitz & Luxenberg has not been accused of wrongdoing, and Feldberg depicted Silver’s role there as above board. New York has a part-time Legislature by design, and law firms routinely employ attorneys whose only job duties involve procuring clients.
Prosecutor Martins said Silver’s response to learning about the FBI’s raid belied this innocent explanation.
“Did you tell them anything?” Silver asked Taub, according to Martins.
Prosecutors repeatedly described Taub as Silver’s goose, who would lay golden eggs in the form of lucrative client referrals, which he traded for state grant money for mesothelioma research.
“Sheldon Silver didn’t care about the research,” Martins said. “The research was a means to an end.”
Invoking the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, defense attorney Feldberg offered a more charitable explanation for Silver’s interest in mesothelioma. He said that Silver had been “devastated” by 9/11, and that his client wanted to fund Taub’s research into a disease that struck many in his district who breathed in asbestos-laden dust from the Twin Towers.
When asked whether the grant money funded 9/11 research at trial, Taub responded “I did not,” according to Feldberg.
During rebuttal summations, however, Assistant U.S. Attorney Daniel Richenthal depicted Silver as disinterested in a patient suffering from mesothelioma – a Massachusetts woman who was Silver’s first referral.
“Sheldon Silver never met her,” Richenthal said. “He never saw her. He saw dollar signs.”
“That is a cold, hard fact of this trial,” he said.
Silver also is accused of making up to $800,000 more from two real estate schemes.
One of them involved Glenwood Management, then the state’s largest donor.
Martins said its law firm, Goldberg & Iryami, kept Silver on a “secret retainer.”
Prosecutors say that real estate developers relied upon Silver for two pieces of legislation vital to their business: tax breaks crucial for making building profitable and financing from the Public Authorities Control Board.
Just as the defense attorney did at the beginning of trial, Feldberg acknowledged that the jury may find these actions “unseemly” but insisted that they are not illegal.
While Silver may have been a politician whom developers did not want to alienate, Feldberg said: “I submit to you that not wanting to alienate someone, even someone powerful, is not nearly enough to satisfy the government’s burden of proof.”
Prosecutor Richtenthal derided the defense’s claim that nobody explicitly mentioned a quid pro quo as an empty legalism.
“Human beings, nonlawyer human beings, they don’t speak like that,” Richenthal said. “They speak about understandings.”
Hammering the point home, Richenthal asked the jury: “Do you think that sophisticated politicians talk like that?”
“Do you think that sophisticated politicians who are taking bribes, who happen to be lawyers, talk like that?” he added.
After the Supreme Court’s McDonnell ruling, honest-government watchdogs complained that the justices did not take the subtleties of modern bribery into consideration. Those advocates widely view Silver’s prosecution as a test case for a post-McDonnell world.
Playing an audio recording of a press interview with Silver for the jury, Martins argued that the politician revealed his corrupt intent by misleading the public about his side businesses.
“Again, I don’t represent corporations,” Silver told reporters in May 2008.
“I don’t represent anybody who in any way has an impact on anything we do legislatively,” Silver added later in the recording.
Blasting these statements as “lies,” Martins said: “He’s doesn’t represent anybody.”
“On the real estate side, he gets paid,” she said. “He gets his bribes.”
After the attorneys finished summations, Judge Caproni read out legal instructions to the jury, which immediately started deliberations. They will return to the jury room on Friday.