By Joseph Ax
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A federal jury considering whether to convict Sheldon Silver, one of New York’s most powerful politicians for two decades, is scheduled to hear closing arguments in his public corruption trial on Monday.
U.S. prosecutors in New York have accused Silver of using his position as the speaker of the state assembly to collect millions of dollars in illegal bribes and kickbacks in exchange for official acts.
But Silver’s defense lawyers have argued that the government has improperly attempted to criminalize what is, in essence, business as usual in the state capital of Albany.
Silver’s former counterpart in the state Senate, Dean Skelos, is himself on trial for corruption in the same Manhattan courthouse, charged with coercing several companies into sending payments to his son Adam in order to secure his political support.
The two trials represent the highest-profile cases in a string of prosecutions and ethics scandals that have ensnared dozens of New York lawmakers in recent years.
Silver, 71, and Skelos, 67, stepped down from their leadership posts after their arrests but have continued to work as legislators, representing lower Manhattan and Long Island, respectively. Silver's trial began on Nov. 3.
Under the state’s political system, the assembly speaker and the senate majority leader, together with the governor, comprise the so-called “three men in a room” who exercise virtually unfettered control over the legislative and budget process in Albany.
Preet Bharara, the U.S. Attorney in Manhattan, whose office is prosecuting both Silver and Skelos, has criticized that structure as “one of the most corrupt governments in the nation.”
Silver is accused of awarding $500,000 in state grants from a secret fund to a prominent cancer researcher, Robert Taub, who in turn referred patients suffering from asbestos exposure to Silver’s law firm. Silver collected millions of dollars in referral fees and settlements as a result, prosecutors said.
He is also charged with accepting $700,000 in kickbacks for steering real estate developers to another law firm, with the understanding that he would provide needed support for the developers on key legislation.
Silver’s lawyers, who declined to call any witnesses, have argued the government failed to prove the existence of explicit “quid pro quo” agreements during the three-week trial.
(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Tom Brown)