A Manhattan federal jury has found former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver guilty on all seven counts of extortion, taking bribes, and money laundering.
"Today, Sheldon Silver got justice, and at long last, so did the people of New York," said Preet Bharara, U.S. Attorney for New York's Southern District, in a statement.
Each count carries as many as 20 years in prison, and possible fines.
The decision comes after two and a half days of deliberation and a three-week trial. The prosecution centered on the question of whether nearly $4 million in payments Silver received for referring tax and asbestos illness cases to law firms were the fruit of quid pro quo arrangements he made with developers and a prominent cancer researcher for favors, or just run-of-the-mill greed-driven back-room dealing of the legal variety.
In his closing argument last Monday, Silver's attorney Steve Molo blamed Silver's actions on Albany's pay system, wherein legislators are considered part-time, make $79,500 on the books, and are allowed outside jobs.
"It's virtually impossible for someone to serve in this citizen-legislator model and not have some form of conflict," he said.
Molo argued that the prosecution was "a theory in search of a case" pursued by a crusading U.S. Attorney's Office, and that prosecutors hadn't proven direct pay-to-play agreements. There was, however, ample evidence that Silver lied to reporters, voters, and business associates to conceal the various schemes that made him a rich man and benefited select cronies.
There was the $700,000 in kickbacks prosecutors said he received from the law firm Goldberg & Iryami, where Silver's former counsel is a partner, for referring developers Glenwood Management and the Witkoff Group to consult the firm on tax issues. Witkoff Group owner Steven Witkoff testified that he agreed to steer business the firm's way in 2004, figuring it was an easy favor to keep Silver happy, but didn't learn until a decade later that Silver was profiting off of it.
Witkoff testified that he yelled at Silver for failing to notify him of the referral fees and pulling him into an unethical scheme.
"I was very, very concerned that what I thought had been a favor for someone’s friend was now going to turn into being a misperception that we had done something wrong," Witkoff said.
For years, Silver refused to identify who he was doing legal work for, citing client confidentiality. In a 2008 radio interview with Fred Dicker that prosecutors played for the jury, Silver claimed, "My clients are little people who have nothing to do with the political life" and said he did not represent people with business before the state.
In fact, as witnesses testified, Silver did no legal work outside of referrals, and some of those he referred were major real estate firms looking to pay less in taxes. A lobbyist for Glenwood Management, New York's leading political donor, testified that Silver met with him during state negotiations about renewing rent regulations in 2011, and that Silver secured provisions in the new rent law that the company wanted. The lobbyist said he was ignorant of the referral fees Silver was pocketing.
In a separate scheme, prosecutors outlined how Silver steered lucrative asbestos cancer cases to the law firm Weitz & Luxenberg in exchange for millions in referral fees. Silver didn't get the names and numbers of mesothelioma sufferers because of any particular knack for tracking them down, but because researcher Dr. Robert Taub of Columbia University was steering them to him, and getting hundreds of thousands in state grants for research outside of the normal channels.
In an email he sent to a Mesothelioma research charity, Taub complained about having to send patients to Weitz & Luxenberg, writing that the foundation "is interested in supporting mess research throughout the country, not just private jets."
In an email to another mesothelioma advocate about soliciting Silver's help with setting up a cancer research fundraiser run, Taub explained that Silver is a master of the exchange of favors:
"It will probably cost us," he wrote of getting Silver involved. "He is very good at getting people to owe him. But if he says he will deliver, he does."
The deliberation paused for the Thanksgiving holiday after a half-day last Wednesday. It was interrupted twice, once by a juror who, two hours in, wrote a note to the judge saying he or she was being ganged up on by the others.
"I am so stressed out right now that I can’t even write normally," the juror wrote. "I don’t feel like I can be myself right now! I need to leave!"
Judge Valerie Caproni told the other jurors to be nice and said it was too early to dismiss anyone.
When the jury reconvened, another juror, a Bronx taxi driver asked to be excused because he learned over the break that his medallion's owner knows Silver. Caproni assured him that retaliation against a juror is illegal and sent him back.
"Well, I’ll do my best or whatever," the juror said. I’d really prefer not to hear any more, but if you order that, that’s what I gotta do."
Silver resigned as speaker in January following his arrest, ending 20 years at the post. He was an assemblyman for nearly 40 years and will automatically forfeit his seat now that he has been convicted.
In their closing argument, prosecutors summed up their complex allegations with bulleted slides that WNYC described as "high school debate meets Buzzfeed listicle," featuring headings such as "Nine Reasons You Know Sheldon Silver is Guilty."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew Goldstein urged jurors preparing to deliberate to reject Silver's attorneys' argument that his moneymaking deals were mere instances of ethical messiness brought on by a difficult system.
"To taint your fellow legislators and the democratic process with your own corruption, and say that that's politics as usual, it is not even close," Mr. Goldstein said. "Not by a mile."
He continued: "This, ladies and gentlemen, was bribery. This was extortion. This was corruption—the real deal. Do not let it stand."