Lawyer: Toss politician's bribe case over prosecutor's words

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Posted: Feb 24, 2015 7:28 PM
Lawyer: Toss politician's bribe case over prosecutor's words

NEW YORK (AP) — U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara didn't mince words after bringing bribery charges against then-Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, saying the powerful lawmaker practiced "the greedy art of secret self-reward." Now Silver's lawyers say the prosecutor's rhetoric went so far that the case should be thrown out.

While entering a not guilty plea for Silver on Tuesday, his lawyers argued that Bharara broke rules about what prosecutors can say outside court and may have prejudiced the grand jury that indicted the Democratic legislator last week.

"He has offered his uncensored views about Mr. Silver's guilt, his character and the severity of his crimes — always in inflammatory, over-the-top language that targets not just Mr. Silver but the entire New York state government," lawyers Steven Molo, Joel Cohen and others wrote in a filing Tuesday.

As Bharara discussed the case in a press conference and speech, he portrayed it as an example of Albany's "cauldron of corruption." He said the case provided "the answer" for those who'd wondered how Silver made a fortune as a lawyer during decades as a legislator. And he suggested in an MSNBC interview that Silver, one of New York's foremost political powerbrokers, "sold his office to line his pockets and compromised his integrity and ethics."

Prosecutors said Bharara's comments weren't unusual or prejudicial. The defense allegations "are baseless," Assistant U.S. Attorney Carrie Cohen said.

A judge has yet to rule.

The argument reflects the sky-high profile of the case, which landed on newspaper front pages as it rocked New York's power structure. Silver, accused of exploiting his huge influence to reap $4 million in kickbacks from law firms for doing political favors instead of legal work, stepped down as speaker, a post he'd held for 21 years, after his January arrest.

Silver, 71, retains the lower Manhattan Assembly seat he has held for nearly four decades.

"I will be vindicated in the court," he said after Tuesday's brief proceeding.

It's not uncommon for prosecutors to discuss major cases at news conferences or other public venues, and court rules, Department of Justice regulations and New York attorney conduct rules allow them to disclose the facts and substance of a case. The regulations caution against subjective observations, opining about a defendant's guilt or otherwise making comments likely to compromise fair-trial rights.

Silver's arrest roiled the state capital, where 28 legislators have stepped down because of criminal or ethical issues during the past 15 years. Four others, including Silver, remain in office while fighting charges.

The case centers on law firm referral fees that prosecutors say were kickbacks to Silver.

A firm that specializes in asbestos-related-illness cases paid Silver more than $3 million while he quietly arranged $500,000 in state grants benefiting a doctor who referred his patients to the firm, prosecutors said. While Silver said he spent several hours each week evaluating potential cases for the firm, prosecutors said he did no work on the asbestos cases.

Meanwhile, a real estate tax law firm paid Silver for using his political clout to net powerful developers as clients, prosecutors said. A Silver representative has said none of Silver's legal clients had business before the state, but prosecutors say he provided key support for a proposal made by one of the developers.

Silver's lawyers note that New York lawmakers commonly work part time in private jobs and that attorneys can earn referral fees for bringing in business.

"'Rainmaking' is not a federal crime," they wrote in Tuesday's filing.

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Reach Jennifer Peltz on Twitter @jennpeltz.