Ex-New York Speaker Convicted of All Corruption Counts

by | December 1, 2015

By John Riley, Nicole Fuller and Anthony M. Destefano

Former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver was convicted Monday of federal corruption charges, ending the legendary Albany power broker's political career in disgrace and giving Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara a signal victory in his crusade to clean up the Capitol.

Silver, 71, one of Albany's proverbial "three men in a room" who ruled the Assembly with seldom-questioned authority for 20 years, was stoic as the jury forewoman read seven consecutive verdicts of guilty on extortion, bribery and money-laundering charges on just the third day of deliberations.

But after jurors left the tense, packed Manhattan federal courtroom, Silver formed his lips into a circle, looked down and slowly exhaled as he shuffled to a private room, digesting a result that meant automatic expulsion from the Assembly and a possible prison sentence of up to 130 years.

"I was disappointed," Silver said an hour later, wading into a mass of reporters outside the courthouse with his lawyers, who pledged efforts to overturn the verdict.

Bharara, who called Albany a "cauldron of corruption" after charging Silver in January, came in person to hear the verdict.

"Today, Sheldon Silver got justice," he said in a statement afterward, "and at long last, so did the people of New York."

Silver, a Democrat who resigned as speaker after he was charged but continued to represent Manhattan's Lower East Side, was accused at trial of making $4 million in two separate corrupt schemes.

In one, he provided $500,000 in state research grants to Dr. Robert Taub, a prominent asbestos-disease doctor, who in return referred patients to a law firm that gave Silver a split.

In the other, Silver tilted real estate legislation on rent-control and tax breaks toward two major developers -- one of them Glenwood Management of New Hyde Park -- which took tax cases to a longtime Silver friend who secretly shared fees with the speaker.

No witness said there was an explicit quid pro quo. The defense said Bharara was trying to criminalize New York's part-time lawmakers' receipt of legal outside income, but the government said circumstantial evidence showed Silver corruptly sold his office.

Most jurors didn't speak after the verdict, but Arleen Phillips, 53, of Mount Vernon, said she was the lone juror who initially thought Silver was not guilty but was eventually swayed by Silver's failure to fully reveal his law-firm referral money on state disclosure forms.

"Why wouldn't it be out in the open?" said Phillips, who last week asked U.S. District Judge Valerie Caproni to excuse her because of the pressure she felt as the lone pro-Silver juror. "Why was it hidden?"

Phillips, a Verizon technician, also said she liked Silver, finding him "unassuming" and "humble," and initially thought he provided the asbestos-disease research grants to Taub out of "good will" without any "scheming or manipulation." She would have liked to hear him testify.

"I wanted to hear his voice to see if there was any arrogance, any evidence of being deceitful," she said. "I still think he's humble and unassuming, but he may have this other side that as speaker he's entitled to do this."

The State Legislature, she predicted, will be affected by the verdict. "Any Assembly member who now considers what happened today will be careful, take a second look to make sure there is not a conflict of interest, get advice," she said.

Another juror, Kenneth Graham, 69, a Bronx cabdriver who earlier Monday disclosed to the judge that he leased his taxi medallion from a man who might know Silver, said he believed Silver was guilty right from the start.

"We go through the thing and we decide, that is all," Graham said.

The prosecution of Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre), whose own federal corruption trial is ongoing in Manhattan, followed their decision along with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in 2014 to disband a state Moreland Commission that was investigating lawmakers' outside income.

The three said it wasn't needed because they had agreed on ethics reforms, but Bharara criticized the decision at the time, took possession of the commission's files and warned Cuomo -- who had been accused of interfering -- to stop urging commissioners to rebut public criticism.

Cuomo Monday said the conviction meant it was again time for reforms.

"Today, justice was served," the governor said in a tweet. "With the allegations proven, it is time for the legislature to take seriously the need for reform. There will be zero tolerance for the violation of the public trust in New York."

Skelos' lawyer Robert Gage declined to comment about whether publicity about Silver's conviction would adversely affect his client's chances.

Skelos himself, leaving court, did not comment on Silver's downfall, but noted that several years ago former Senate leader Joseph L. Bruno was acquitted of corruption charges.

"My case is what I'm focused on, what my attorneys are focused on," Skelos said. "I'm very confident that I will be found innocent."

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