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Long IslandColumnistsDan Janison

On trial: Same Silver, more muted

Former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver arrives at the

Former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver arrives at the courthouse in Manhattan on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2015, for his corruption trial. The 71-year-old Manhattan Democrat was arrested in January on charges that he took nearly $4 million in kickbacks. Photo Credit: AP / Seth Wenig

After so many years of seeing Assemb. Sheldon Silver at the pinnacle of state power, it is strange to watch him in a government building with his fate in the hands of others.

As a felony defendant in federal court in Manhattan, the former Assembly speaker seems to keep a calm affect. He stands in a gray pinstripe suit, hands in pockets, during a break in the proceedings, looking as before like one who keeps his own counsel, even as he makes a brief side comment or two to one of his lawyers.

Out in the hall, Silver (D-Manhattan) walks alone as before, but under the circumstances, indulges in no small talk. An acquaintance addresses him; he just shrugs and smiles thinly. Nobody ever really knew for sure what he was thinking. Fans always called this a sign of his strategic smarts, while detractors, such as the U.S. attorney's office, paint this style as part of a propensity for furtive scheming.

Unlike a contested murder case, the matter of Silver allegedly scooping up millions of dollars while a part-time legislator poses less of a who-done-it than a how-he-did-it -- with the burden on the jury to decide if his actions were legal.

The key prosecution witness so far had been, by all accounts, a friend of the speaker: Robert Taub, a doctor specializing in asbestos-related cancers.

Prosecutors in the trial's opening days have tried to elicit from Taub a picture of a transactional relationship -- with Taub referring patients to the law firm with which Silver was affiliated, and Taub's mesothelioma research center receiving state funds through the speaker's office.

To counter this cold portrayal of the bond between them, Silver lawyer Steven Molo cited the men's' links in the Orthodox Jewish community. He cross-examined Taub by pointing in part to some handmade matzos Silver gave him during Passover, Silver's presence at a wedding ceremony for Taub's daughter known as "the Seven Blessings" and Silver introducing him to former Sen. Joe Lieberman.

The colorful bow ties Taub wore as he testified on back-to-back days attracted notice from spectators in the fourth-floor courtroom.

But the doctor came off as far from a dandy. Turning at times to one side, he spoke in a gentle, exhausted voice and testified that he was "terrified" when federal investigators last year showed up at his door at 6 one morning. As he exited the witness chair yesterday and left the courtroom, Taub visibly avoided eye contact with Silver as he moved by him.

U.S. District Judge Valerie Caproni, a former general counsel to the FBI, seems to keep the rival lawyers' questioning on a short leash. She cultivates a "no-nonsense" image. And the accent she does it in -- she grew up in Columbus, Georgia -- leaves little doubt that this is a federal, not New York, governmental domain. This became most clear when she referred Thursday at one point to Exhibit 595-a, pronouncing the numerals "fahv-nahn-fahv."

But even in this federal forum, Albany partisanship rears its head. Prosecution witness Victor Frankel, a staffer for the Democrat-controlled Assembly Ways and Means Committee, testified that as speaker, Silver decided who got state funds of the kind that supported Taub's research.

Asked by Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew Goldstein if all those funds were spent, Frankel said no. "Unlike our Republican counterparts," Frankel said, "we're always very conservative about our spending -- ironically speaking."

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