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Developer testifies he didn't know about Sheldon Silver's share of referral fees

Former State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver leaving the

Former State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver leaving the courthouse in Foley Square in Manhattan following a day of testimony in his corruption trial on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2015. Photo Credit: John Roca

A developer testified at the corruption trial of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver Tuesday that he was never told Silver would get a share of the fees on cases he referred to a Manhattan lawyer who was a friend of Silver's and was "incensed" when the lawyer asked him to lie about it.

Developer Steven Witkoff of the Witkoff Group told the jury that he started sending tax cases involving five buildings to the law firm Goldberg & Iryami after Silver's request at a 2005 lunch, because it was an "easy favor to do" and he didn't want to "alienate" the powerful speaker.

Witkoff said he didn't know anything about the fee-split until 2014, when he got a call from Jay Goldberg, who said he and Silver were under investigation for the fee-splitting and "he asked me to remember that I knew about the fee-splitting."

"I was incensed and belligerent," Witkoff testified. "Mr. Goldberg was asking me to remember something that was simply not the case in my view."

Witkoff also testified that he was troubled by nondisclosure of the fee-splitting with Silver when he learned of it.

"He's an elected official and we would have been concerned to make sure we weren't doing anything wrong, anything illegal or illegitimate," Witkoff testified.

Silver, 71, is charged with making $4 million in law firm referral fees in two quid pro quo schemes. The Democratic lawmaker allegedly gave state grants to a doctor who referred asbestos patients, and did legislative favors for New Hyde Park's Glenwood Management and the Witkoff Group to get them to refer cases to Goldberg, in return for Goldberg splitting fees.

Witnesses from Glenwood, as well as Witkoff, have also testified that they were not initially told Silver would be getting a share of fees, and wanted to have good relations with the speaker.

Glenwood's chief lobbyist, Richard Runes, said during testimony Monday that he did not want to alienate Silver, the same word used by Witkoff.

"I wanted to be able to approach him as needed," Witkoff testified.

On cross-examination by defense attorney Steve Molo, Witkoff admitted there was never an explicit favor done in return for a government action by Silver.

The trial began Nov. 2 in federal court in Manhattan. Silver resigned as speaker after he was charged but continues to represent Manhattan's Lower East Side.

The government has yet to present a witness who testified there was an explicit quid pro quo. Witkoff, the doctor and Glenwood officials all described a more subtle situation in which they tried to keep in Silver's good graces in hopes of a sympathetic ear.

But prosecutors contend they can prove the case with circumstantial evidence -- including Silver's keeping his referral fees secret from developers and the public.

The prosecution entered into evidence more than a decade's worth of Silver's financial disclosure forms filed with the state in an attempt to show he failed to report the fees from the Goldberg firm.

The defense argued that the form had changed over the years and that it had lacked specificity in earlier years.

Prosecutors also entered into evidence written and taped comments Silver made to Albany reporters in which he said the clients he referred to his law firm were "little people" who had no connection to state government.

"There's no requirement that people sit down and say, 'If you pay bribes, I'll take care of you,' " U.S. District Judge Valerie Caproni said Monday outside the presence of the jury.

"This whole trial is a circumstantial evidence case," she added. "They've got things that happened. The government is asking the jury to infer what was his state of mind."

The trial will not be in session Thursday and Friday. Closing arguments in the case could occur as early as Monday.


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