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Sheldon Silver's high-stakes corruption trial set to begin

Former New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver

Former New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver leaves Federal Court in Manhattan after appearing for a pre-trial hearing on Friday, Oct. 16, 2015. Credit: Craig Ruttle

On Aug. 28, 2011, as Dr. Robert Taub, a prominent mesothelioma researcher, thought about asking Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver for help getting permits for a "Miles for Meso" charity walk in Lower Manhattan, he emailed an organizer about his reservations.

"It will probably cost us," Taub wrote, according to court papers. "He is very good at getting people to owe him. But if he says he will deliver, he does."

Four years later, Taub is poised to be a star government witness as Silver's high-stakes corruption trial begins Monday in federal court in Manhattan on charges that the now ex-speaker used his Albany power to line his pockets with nearly $4 million by delivering -- for a price.

Over a trial expected to last a month, prosecutors will try to prove two schemes -- that Silver helped Taub get $500,000 in state research funds in return for referring asbestos patients to a law firm that paid Silver, and also used his legislative clout to get two developers to use a Manhattan law firm that split its fees with Silver.

Although no evidence has been heard, legal experts warn that nonstop publicity about U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara's campaign to clean up a "cauldron of corruption" in Albany after the case's filing in January -- quickly followed in May by charges against then-Senate leader Dean Skelos -- may be hard for Silver to overcome.

"It's very difficult," said Josh Dratel, a Manhattan defense lawyer. "You go in with a presumption of innocence, but you also have this presumption of cynicism about politicians that almost cancels it out."

A look at legislative process

High-stakes Albany corruption cases are nothing new. Another speaker, Mel Miller, was driven from office after a 1991 corruption conviction that was later overturned, and former Senate boss Joe Bruno was tried twice, in 2009 and 2014, before both were vindicated.

But Silver's trial promises an unusually intimate look inside the Capitol's legislative process. Prosecutors have indicated, for example, that the trial will explore Silver's role in the budgetary deal-making that led to the 2014 demise of a Moreland Commission investigating legislators' outside income.

Government filings also suggest there will be testimony on matters ranging from lobbying on big-ticket items like rent regulation and real estate tax abatements, to Silver's killing of a Manhattan drug treatment clinic and $10 million in campaign contributions from New Hyde Park-based Glenwood Management, one of the real estate developers he allegedly shook down.

It will, in a word, be a show.

"There's a lot of expectation this will provide some great reading material," said Steve Greenberg, a former Assembly aide who runs an Albany public relations firm. "For voters across New York who have been frustrated for many years, what they're going to see over the next month is certainly going to intensify those feelings."

Prosecutors have said they may have more than 60 witnesses. They have not released a list, but have said that in addition to Taub they expect to call Glenwood lobbyists including Albany veteran Brian Meara, and Silver's longtime top aide, Judy Rapfogel. It remains unclear whether Glenwood's billionaire owner Leonard Litwin will testify.

Taub, according to the charges, is expected to testify that he knew Silver through a mutual friend and initially declined to refer patients to Silver's law firm -- Weitz and Luxenberg -- because it did not donate to cancer research, but changed when Silver approved $250,000 grants to Taub from a state fund he controlled in 2005 and 2006.

Glenwood lobbyists will allegedly say the firm Goldberg & Iryami was hired for tax work in 2000 at Silver's behest to "accommodate" him because Glenwood depended on state subsidies, tax abatements and rent regulation. When they later learned he got a share of their fees, prosecutors say, they feared reprisal if they withdrew due to ethics concerns.

Quid pro quo, or no

Legal experts say the details of those witnesses' testimony will be the key to the case.

Unless Silver was imprudent enough to make a quid pro quo explicit, said Manhattan criminal lawyer Peter Quijano, the defense will use cross-examination to suggest he never actually tied hiring his law firms to legislative stances.

"The fact that the witness interprets it as 'to get what I want I have to pay' is not necessarily what Silver was intending," said Quijano, who represented former assemblyman William Boyland last year in a bribery case. "If there are no tapes, the cross-examination becomes the critical defense here."

Dratel noted that outside law firm income is legal in New York, funding things such as cancer research is not a crime, and legislating on issues campaign donors are interested in -- a small step removed from what Silver allegedly did -- is standard operating procedure.

"If a big donor gets a favor you don't necessarily tie it to the donation," he said. "It's just part of the process. The key is to decouple it."

In pretrial skirmishes over evidence such as Taub's "Miles for Meso" email, however, U.S. District Judge Valerie Caproni, the no-nonsense ex-FBI counsel who will preside, acknowledged that prosecutors must prove Silver's intent, but noted that a witness's belief can be strong circumstantial proof.

"It is unusual in terms of common sense and human nature," she said, "that one person in a relationship believes they are in a quid pro quo relationship and the other party does not."

If there is ambiguity in the testimony, Bharara's team may have another card to play. They are expected to try to counter with evidence of "concealment" -- suggesting that Silver revealed a guilty conscience by failing to report his ties to the Goldberg firm on state disclosures, and working to kill the Moreland Commission probe.

That was the event that sparked Bharara's probe in the first place, and it could resonate with jurors, experts say.

"Often the cover-up is more damning than the underlying conduct," said James Cohen, a professor of criminal law at Fordham University's law school. "It's simple human nature. Most people will say, 'You did what? You shut down that whole inquiry?' "

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