NEW YORK — A federal prosecutor accused New York's former assembly speaker Monday of taking millions of dollars in legal fees as bribes, while a defense lawyer insisted there was nothing illegal about the transactions.
Sheldon Silver, who for years was one of the most powerful politicians in the state, was "blinded by greed," Assistant U.S. Attorney Damian Williams said in opening statements at Silver's bribery trial in federal court in Manhattan. "He abused his power for personal gain."
Defense attorney Michael Feldberg countered by describing the 74-year-old Democrat as a dedicated public servant and argued there was no proof his client pocketed the money in exchange for taking official action. He said accepting payments that far exceeded his income as a lawmaker was "perfectly, 100 percent legal."
The competing portrayals came at Silver's second criminal trial. His first, in 2015, ended with a guilty verdict and 12-year prison sentence — an outcome that was reversed last July by an appeals court that cited a U.S. Supreme Court ruling narrowing public corruption law.
Silver, a lawyer first elected to the Assembly in 1976, gained a reputation as a backroom dealer who controlled the fate of nearly every major piece of legislation. But prosecutors allege he also was a politician on the take.
Silver persuaded a physician to refer asbestos cancer patients to his law firm so it could seek multimillion-dollar settlements from personal injury lawsuits, a secret arrangement that allowed him to collect about $3 million in referral fees, Williams said. In return, the defendant directed hundreds of thousands of dollars in state grants to a research center run by the doctor, he said.
"Selling your office for $3 million is corruption, pure and simple," the prosecutor said.
The government alleges that Silver made another $1 million in referral fees when he got big real estate developers to take their tax work to another firm. It says he repaid the favor by using his clout in the legislature to win the developers tax breaks and other benefits.
But Feldberg told jurors that there was no understanding that the doctor and the developers were paying bribes. He claimed that they didn't even know Silver was collecting the fees.
"The evidence will show there is no quid pro quo, there is no bribe," he said. Even if it looked like there was a conflict of interest, "conflict of interest is not a criminal offense," he added.
He also urged the jurors not to allow any distaste for politicians or the fact that Silver got rich while in office influence their views of the case.
"It is just not a crime to be a politician, even a powerful one," Feldberg said. "There is nothing illegal about making money, even a lot of money."
The Silver trial is expected to last about a month and is likely to be largely a repeat of the first one, tailored slightly to conform to a June 2016 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that narrowed the definition of a corrupt act.
Among the first witnesses Monday was Dr. Robert Taub, a retired Columbia University doctor who said he agreed to refer asbestos cancer patients to Silver's law firm so it could seek multimillion-dollar settlements from personal injury lawsuits.
Taub, 82, said he wanted to "incentivize Mr. Silver to become an advocate for mesothelioma patients."