NYS Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver Charged with Corruption

Speaker Sheldon Silver

Speaker Sheldon Silver

New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has been arrested and charged with corruption and extortion by the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara. At a press conference Bharara detailed the charges which have been filed after an investigation by his office and the FBI. Both Bharara and Richard Frankel, Special Agent-in-Charge explained how the alleged crimes were committed. One involved real estate development. The other involved and asbestos abatement program and alleges that individuals impacted by asbestos were steered to Silver’s law firm by doctor. The complaint alleges that Silver was credited with referring more than 100 clients to his law firm, the majority for potential asbestos litigation. Investigators, however, spoke with more than 10 of those individuals or their surviving relatives and found that none had ever contacted Mr. Silver to seek legal representation, nor had they been contacted by him or knew of any role he played in providing any legal service. The complaint alleges that Silver received referral fees although Silver did no legal work on the cases nor was an expert on laws involving asbestos poisoning.. The referrals came from a doctor, referred to as “Doctor-1” in the complaint, who directed possible asbestos victims to Weitz & Luxenberg. Silver then secretly funneled state grants to fund the doctor’s research. The unnamed doctor appears to be Robert N. Taub, director of the Columbia University Mesothelioma Center, part of the NewYork Presbyterian-Hospital, a person briefed on the investigation confirmed. The complaint refers to two state grants totaling $500,000 that Mr. Silver directed to the Mesothelioma Center in 2005 and 2007. State contract data shows the first award was for “asbestos research from 9/11” and the second for “research expenses on mesothelioma.”

Preet Baharara, US Attorney for the Southern Distrit of New York

Preet Baharara, US Attorney for the Southern Distrit of New York

 

The other part of the inquiry by Mr. Bharara’s office and the F.B.I. focused in part on payments that Mr. Silver received from a real estate law firm, which is not identified in the complaint but which a person briefed on the matter said was Goldberg & Iryami, which specializes in seeking reductions of New York City real estate taxes. The complaint, sworn out by Robert W. Ryan, a criminal investigator in Mr. Bharara’s office, said that Mr. Silver steered two developers to Goldberg & Iryami and “received a share of all fees” that the firm received from work connected to them. A person briefed on the matter confirmed that the developer referred to in the complaint as “Developer-1” is Leonard Litwin, a real estate magnate who heads Glenwood Management and is one of the state’s most prolific political donors.

Silver’s lawyers, Joel Cohen and Steven Molo, said in a statement: “We’re disappointed that the prosecutors have chosen to proceed with these meritless criminal charges. That said, Mr. Silver looks forward to responding to them — in court — and ultimately his full exoneration.”

Richard Frankel, FBI Special Agent in Charge

Richard Frankel, FBI Special Agent in Charge

It is interesting to note that three of the last four NYS Assembly Speakers were indicted. The last one was Speaker Mel Miller who held on to the Speaker position until he was actually convicted in December of 1991 for committing fraud in conntection with the buying and selling of cooperative apartments between 1984 and 1986 when he was a partner in the law firm of Adolf & Miller. This conviction was eventually overturned. Prior to Mel Miller’s indictment, Speaker Stanley Steingut was indicted on corruption charges. While under indictment, he was opposed in the 1976 Democratic Primary by Murray Weinstein, a political unknown. Weinstein’s daughter, now Assemblywoman Helene Weinstein, was originally running for the seat but was thrown off the ballot one week before the Primary on residency. The petitions were judged legal and her father was selected to run for the seat. He defeated Steingut in the Primary. Steingut then ran on the Liberal Party Line, In the General Election Murray Weinstein beat Steingut 10,297 to 9,079, a margin of a little more than 6% of all votes cast. The indictment of Steingut was eventually dismissed by the NY Court of Appeals based on a jurisdiction issue.

Let us keep in mind that under our laws a person is presumed innocent until proven guilty. During his tenure as Speaker, Silver has been a progressive leader. He has supported women’s rights, LGBT rights, the middle class, opposed the death penalty and supported education reforms. He is now under indictment. My concern is how the NYS Assembly and the State on a whole will function as the judicial process moves forward. The Democratic Caucus has to make a decision once Speaker Silver is back in Albany next week. Perhaps a member of the Democratic Caucus can take over the reins of the Speakership until we know if there is an indictment and a conviction. While I have much respect for what Speaker Sheldon Silver stands for ideologically I feel that he needs to give serious thought to stepping down until this has all been sorted out. There are many excellent members of the NYS Assembly, several from The Bronx, who can lead during this period and avoid turmoil in Albany.