MANHATTAN (CN) – After three weeks of trial, there is no dispute over the facts of how New York Assemblyman Sheldon Silver collected roughly $4 million for little work, but lawyers argued from the early morning well into the evening over whether it was legal.
The former Speaker of the Assembly, Silver faces seven charges of honest services fraud, extortion, and money laundering broken down into two alleged conspiracies.
For Silver, the most profitable of these was his work for the firm Weitz & Luxenberg, which specializes in cases of asbestos-related disease. Silver does not deny helping Columbia University doctor Robert Taub secure state research grants for mesothelioma, or that Taub referred patients to him earning him millions in contingency fees over the span of a decade.
Silver also admittedly received hundreds of thousands for providing a major client to the firm Goldberg & Iryami: Glenwood Management, a real estate developer that aggressively lobbied his office for favorable legislation in Albany.
The parties dispute, however, whether any of this amounted to a crime.
Early this morning, Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew Goldstein called it “outrageous” for Silver’s attorney to suggest that New York’s founding fathers envisioned this would be legal, and he finished his remarks by exhorting jurors to reject the notion that this was “politics as usual.”
“To taint your fellow legislators in the democratic process with your own corruption and say that’s politics as usual? It’s not even close. Not by a mile,” Goldstein said. “This, ladies and gentlemen, was bribery. This was extortion. This was corruption. The real deal. Do not let it stand.”
Silver’s attorney Steven Molo, a partner at MoloLamken, argued from the beginning of trial that the state constitution made such apparent conflicts of interest inevitable by making legislators part-time public servants.
“That could be right. That could be wrong,” Molo conceded. “But that right now is the law, and it has been since the 1700s in New York.”
Throughout the trial, prosecutors argued that Silver hid his actions from the public because he knew they were illegal.
Silver now claims that he helped provide “economic justice” for victims of a disease that afflicts primarily blue-collar workers, but he never sent out a press release telling his constituents about his supposedly laudable work at the time.
Prosecutors refer to the pool of state funds that Silver helped provide Taub as the assemblyman’s “secret pot of money,” and they note that Silver never disclosed in contingency-fee income on financial forms.
Silver’s attorney Molo countered that these so-called HCRA funds – named after the Health Care Reform Act – was not the assemblyman’s personal account because other legislators would write him to sponsor their own initiatives.
To convict Silver, prosecutors need to show that the arrangement was a quid pro quo, but the key witness to the mesothelioma scheme testified there was no “explicit” agreement with the assemblyman.
“It takes two to tango,” Molo said.
In negotiating his deal with the government, Taub’s lawyers got the government to strike language from an earlier draft saying that he made his referrals “in exchange for” Silver’s official actions and “at Silver’s request.”
“Please look at [the cooperating agreements], and consider the significance of these six words,” Molo urged the jury.
Likewise, witnesses for Glenwood – the top campaign donor in New York state – denied knowing that Silver earned referral fees until many years after the developer retained Goldberg & Iryami.
Prosecutors say that Silver secretly met with Glenwood’s lobbyist about extending a so-called 421 – a tax break for rent stabilization – four years ago.
When that lobbyist testified, Molo asked him whether such one-on-one meetings were illegal.
Interrupting, U.S. District Judge Valerie Caproni cracked a joke that gave the defense ammunition for its summation.
“You would be out of business [if it were illegal],” Caproni told the lobbyist.
Defense attorneys also attacked the chronology of the deal, noting that Glenwood retained Goldberg & Iryami more than a decade before this vote and did not learn that Silver was on its payroll until after the legislation passed.
Ridiculing this as a “theory in search of a case,” Molo said: “It has to be the strangest quid pro quo ever.”
The jury also heard audio recordings of Silver apparently hiding the nature of his work with the two law firms from reporters.
“I don’t represent anybody who has, uh, an impact on anything we do legislatively,” Silver said in a May 2008 interview.
For the prosecutor, these recordings show Silver “lied about these schemes to everybody.”
“In a case about honest services, those lies scream guilt,” Goldstein added.
Dismissing what he called “snippets” of records, Silver’s attorney pointed to another interview where the assemblyman mentioned an “asbestos” case to a major New York City tabloid.
“It’s not a good way to keep a secret to tell the New York Post, especially if you’re a politician,” Molo quipped.
As for Silver’s dealings with Glenwood, Molo said his client never wavered from his commitment to tenants’ rights, and he originally pushed for stronger bills that died in the state Senate.
Prosecutor Goldstein maintained that such failed legislation was only “for show.”
“The real work happened behind closed doors,” he said.
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