Sheldon Silver convicted on all counts in corruption trial
Assemblyman Sheldon Silver — one of the most powerful men in Albany for two decades and a constant in shaping state policy under five governors — was found guilty Monday of selling his office for legal fees, capping a trial that cast new light on the capital's lax ethics laws and handing federal prosecutors a big win in a case that had lacked a smoking gun.
Silver, a Democrat, sat silently as the verdict was announced in a federal courtroom less than a mile from the Lower East Side district he has represented since 1977. The decision was reached after jurors spent nearly two full days deliberating, following a three-week trial.
The conviction will force Silver, who resigned as speaker after being indicted earlier this year, to vacate his seat in the Assembly.
He will be sentenced next year, and prosecutors have said he could face up to 20 years in prison for each of the seven counts of which he was convicted.
After the conviction, Silver told reporters he would continue his legal battle, and thanked his constituents for their support.
Silver had been accused of engaging in two schemes to enrich himself over the past decade, trading official favors for about $4 million in legal fees.
In one scheme, prosecutors said he sent $500,000 in state grant money to Dr. Robert Taub, a Columbia University researcher who in turn referred some of his patients to a law firm, Weitz & Luxenberg, where Silver was of counsel.
In the other, prosecutors said Silver pushed major real estate developers with persistent interests in Albany to hire the tax certiorari firm Goldberg & Iryami. Silver never disclosed that the firm was paying him a cut of the business, and never listed the firm on required financial disclosure forms.
He had faced three federal charges — mail fraud, wire fraud and extortion — for each scheme, as well as a money laundering charge after prosecutors accused him of having illegally laundered the proceeds of those schemes to lucrative investments with a Buffalo-area venture capitalist.
Jurors found Silver guilty on all seven charges.
The verdict will have few direct political implications. After Silver was effectively removed from his leadership post in February, days after his arrest, the chamber elected a new leader, leaving the former speaker to serve as a conspicuous back-bencher. Democrats have an overwhelming electoral advantage in Silver's district and also control the chamber with a more than two-thirds majority.
But his conviction marks a major victory for Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney who brought charges against Silver and Dean Skelos, the former Republican leader of the State Senate, whose trial is still ongoing in the same courthouse.
During Silver's trial, Bharara had often watched from the back row — at times visibly perturbed as defense lawyers said he was trying to condemn a state legislative system in which he had no formal role.
On Monday, he again appeared in the courtroom as the verdict was read, and shook hands with prosecutors after the convictions were announced.
“Today, Sheldon Silver got justice, and at long last, so did the people of New York," Bharara said in a statement.
Advocates for reforming Albany said the results would be seismic.
"A political earthquake has hit Albany," said Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group. "This is a stinging rebuke to the 'Albany business as usual' defense and a clarion call to clean up state ethics."
But previous scandals and convictions have failed to dramatically change the state's political culture, and most of the state's most powerful officials — including Silver's successor as Assembly speaker, Carl Heastie, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who said earlier changes had prompted the case against Silver — aren't yet pressing for more reforms.
“What I think what it underscores overall is, when you are in government, you have maintain the highest standards. You have to maintain the public trust. You have to be a model of integrity. And I hope all those who are watching the trial understand that message,” Cuomo said last week, when asked about the trial. “There will always be dishonest people. There will always be people who try to find a way around the system. And we have to have a system where if someone does that, your system can actually find them and punish them so nobody gets the same idea.”
From the case's very outset nearly a year ago, Bharara’s office had painted Silver as a poster child for Albany politicians out to make a buck at the expense of constituents.
“The 'show me the money' culture of Albany has been perpetuated at the very top of the political food chain,” Bharara said in January as he unveiled the complaint against Silver.
Prosecutors from his office, led by Assistant U.S. Attorney Carrie Cohen, said the case against him boiled down to three elements.
“Power. Greed. Corruption,” Cohen told the jury in her opening statement. “This is a case about a powerful politician who betrayed those he was supposed to serve to line his own pockets.”
Defense attorney Steven Molo argued that the government was putting New York’s political system, not Silver himself, on trial, and that however unseemly the schemes might appear, they were not illegal.
The trial centered largely on the fact that New York allows its part-time lawmakers to earn an unlimited amount of outside income. Defense attorney argued that system makes for inevitable — but not illegal — conflicts of interests.
Early on, Judge Valerie Caproni chided Bharara for his comments to the media about the case, putting prosecutors on notice for “brinkmanship” in its “media blitz."
Bharara, she wrote, "while castigating politicians in Albany for playing fast and loose with the ethical rules that govern their conduct, strayed so close to the edge of the rules governing his own conduct that Defendant Sheldon Silver has a non-frivolous argument that he fell over the edge to the Defendant’s prejudice."
Caproni's succinct style kept the trial’s pace moving at a healthy clip, and she found more than a few reasons to castigate Silver’s defense team, too — especially Molo, whom she admonished for arguing, talking over witnesses and editorializing during cross-examination. At one point, she accused defense attorney Justin Shur of “filibustering” during cross-examination.
Caproni took a more relaxed approach toward the jury, leading to some lighter moments, when attorneys for both sides laughed along with the jury and spectators. Silver himself appeared to embrace the lighter mood, often laughing with them.
That atmosphere offered some relief in a case where prosecutors lacked a smoking gun, and where jurors were thus subjected to long testimony on the details of tax abatements, state grant processing procedures and mesothelioma litigation.
But as it proceeded, a picture of one of New York’s most powerful political figures emerged.
As witnesses testified one after another, many of the specific actions involved in the alleged schemes — from receiving legal referral fees to issuing Assembly-sponsored proclamations — were far from illegal. It was quickly established, however, that Silver rarely, if ever, told any of his associates the full story.
At the same time, the defense argued that Silver’s actions were never criminal — sometimes with clear success, as when the government turned to Lisa Reid, the executive director and counsel to the state’s bipartisan Legislative Ethics Commission, to shed light on Silver’s annual financial disclosure filings. Of particular concern was the fact that the legal fees Silver earned through a real estate tax firm doing work for developers, one of which regularly lobbied Silver directly, never appeared on his disclosure forms.
Under cross-examination from Molo, Reid said her understanding was that lawyers who are legislators were able simply to state that they had a law practice and were not forced to detail the clients they were being paid to perform work for.
Even before the verdict was handed up, good-government groups were calling for reforms. Susan Lerner, the executive director of Common Cause, said she would like to see an end to the practice of treating LLCs as independent entities for purposes of campaign finance laws, a ban or else “absolute transparency” for legislators' side jobs and an end to pots of discretionary funding that lawmakers can direct.
“This is an important wake-up call to the members of the Legislature who haven't realized that there has been a sea change, and it's an opportunity for the Legislature itself to get ahead of itself and make some meaningful changes,” Lerner said.