NEW YORK (AP) — The upcoming trial of one of New York's most powerful politicians is expected to also put backroom deal-making and favors of state government under scrutiny, with jurors asked to decide if some longtime practices amount to corruption or mere politics.
Former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a consummate operator who influenced nearly every major legislative decision over more than two decades, goes on trial Monday accused of taking nearly $4 million in payoffs and kickbacks characterized as attorney referral fees.
The prosecution of the 71-year-old Manhattan Democrat and lawyer is the marquee case in U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara's quest to clean up state government, an effort that has also led to the corruption prosecution of New York's state Senate leader.
Silver has steadfastly professed his innocence since his arrest in January, insisting federal prosecutors misinterpreted the law, turning innocent actions such as pursuing private employment into crimes.
"At bottom, what the government objects to in this case is not actual federal crimes but rather longstanding features of New York state government that the U.S. attorney finds distasteful," Silver's lawyers wrote in court papers.
Prosecutors, though, argue it is criminal for politicians to get rich working side jobs with those who can benefit from laws written in the state Capitol. They say Silver seems to be planning a smoke-and-mirrors defense aimed at leaving jurors confused about what's right and wrong.
In one recent filing, prosecutors said Silver plans to elicit testimony from witnesses about state anti-bribery laws and state ethics rules, creating a sideshow or "mini-trial" to "confuse the issues, mislead the jury, and unnecessarily prolong what already promises to be a lengthy, multi-week trial."
The case against Silver, who stepped down from his speaker post after his arrest, focuses on outside employment. Multiple counts of honest services fraud and extortion along with a money laundering charge carry a potential penalty of 130 years in prison.
At one law firm specializing in personal injury and asbestos removal, Weitz & Luxenberg, Silver collected millions of dollars in referral fees for lining up state grants for a doctor's research, according to prosecutors. Prosecutors say the law firm had no knowledge of the alleged scheme.
At a firm specializing in real estate tax law, Silver received big fees for using his political clout to steer powerful developers to the firm as clients, authorities said.
Bharara has toned down his rhetoric about the case since U.S. District Judge Valerie Caproni said he went too far when he announced Silver's arrest with a scathing review of New York State's political machinery, including an observation that power was "unduly concentrated in the hands of just a few men."
At a news conference after Silver's arrest, Bharara said "it seems sometimes that Albany really is a cauldron of corruption."
Then the next day, in a speech before a law school audience that was laced with humor, Bharara derided the state's reputation for making deals with just the Assembly speaker, the Senate president and the governor, the so-called "three men in a room."
Several months later, Bharara charged Dean Skelos, New York's then-Senate leader, with extortion and soliciting bribes, claiming that the state's most powerful Republican official used his position to earn hundreds of thousands of dollars for his son, who was also charged.
Skelos, 67, has said he and his son will be found innocent. They go to trial this month as well.