NYT: Sheldon Silver, Ex-New York Assembly Speaker, Is Found Guilty on All Counts

Sheldon Silver, Ex-New York Assembly Speaker, Is Found Guilty on All Counts

By Benjamin Weiser And Susanne Craig  New York Times November 30, 2015


Sheldon Silver, an assemblyman who rose from the Lower East Side of Manhattan to become one of New York State’s most powerful politicians, was found guilty on Monday in a federal corruption trial, ending a case that was the capstone of the government’s efforts to expose the seamy culture of influence peddling in Albany.


Mr. Silver, 71, a Democrat who served more than two decades as the Assembly speaker before he was forced to resign after his arrest in January, will automatically forfeit the Assembly seat to which he was first elected nearly 40 years ago.


The jury’s verdict came in the fifth week of Mr. Silver’s trial in Federal District Court in Manhattan, in which he faced seven counts of honest services fraud, extortion and money laundering. He was convicted on all counts.


Mr. Silver is the most prominent of a string of state lawmakers who have been convicted by prosecutors in the office of Preet Bharara, the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York. At the time of Mr. Silver’s arrest, Mr. Bharara said that the charges against him made it clear that “the show-me-the-money culture of Albany has been perpetuated and promoted at the very top of the political food chain.”


His conviction comes as Mr. Bharara’s office is trying his former counterpart, State Senator Dean G. Skelos, who stepped down as the Senate majority leader after his arrest in May on federal corruption charges.


For portions of his 20 years as speaker, Mr. Silver maintained a viselike grip on power, withstanding a rare challenge from a well-intentioned but unsupported Democratic colleague, and brushing off all criticism of his performance. Mr. Silver was faulted for how he handled two sexual harassment allegations; in 2013, a state ethics report criticized him for covering up accusations of sexual harassment against Assemblyman Vito J. Lopez.


Mr. Silver also loomed large in financial disclosure reports that were required under a new state ethics law, reporting hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in outside income from a law firm, Weitz & Luxenberg. That arrangement would become one of the focal points of the government’s prosecution.


At Mr. Silver’s trial, the government presented evidence that prosecutors said showed he had orchestrated two schemes through which he obtained nearly $4 million in illegal payments in return for taking official actions that benefited a prominent cancer researcher, Dr. Robert N. Taub, at Columbia University, and two New York real estate development firms.


Testimony and other evidence showed that Mr. Silver had arranged to have the New York State Health Department make two grants totaling $500,000 to Dr. Taub, whose research focused on mesothelioma, a deadly form of cancer related to asbestos exposure.


In return, Dr. Taub sent mesothelioma patients with potentially lucrative legal claims to Weitz & Luxenberg, which then shared a portion of its legal fees with Mr. Silver.


In the other scheme, prosecutors charged, Mr. Silver had the two developers, Glenwood Management and the Witkoff Group, move certain tax business to a law firm, Goldberg & Iryami, that secretly shared its fees with Mr. Silver.


In return, the speaker lent his support to critical rent legislation backed by Glenwood, in particular, and met with its lobbyists.


Mr. Silver attended each day of his trial, often wearing pinstripe suits. For the most part he sat quietly, but occasionally chatted with his lawyers, or made notes for their review. He did not testify in his defense, and his lawyers did not call any witnesses.


Mr. Silver’s lawyers argued that in charging him, Mr. Bharara’s office had sought to criminalize the kinds of activity in which state legislators routinely engage.


“They look at conduct which is legal,” one defense lawyer, Steven F. Molo, told the jury in his opening statement, “conduct which is normal, conduct which allows government to function consistent with the way that our founding fathers of the state of New York wanted it to function, and they say this is illegal.”


A federal prosecutor, Howard S. Master, in a summation, cited what he called the “core principle” that “this nation shall be governed by the people and for the people.”


Mr. Silver “governed using a different model,” Mr. Master said. “It wasn’t by the people or for the people. It was by Sheldon Silver for Sheldon Silver.”


The speaker used his office to “dispense benefits to people who were paying him in quid pro quo relationship,” Mr. Master added. “He used that power and that money to line his pockets.”