By Jonathan Stempel and Nate Raymond
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Sheldon Silver, former speaker of the New York State Assembly, can stay free on bail while he appeals his corruption conviction, a Manhattan federal judge ruled on Thursday.
U.S. District Judge Valerie Caproni said Silver raised a "substantial question" of law as to whether she instructed his jury properly, in light of the U.S. Supreme Court's subsequent overturning of former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell's corruption conviction.
Caproni ruled three weeks after another Manhattan judge, also citing McDonnell, said former New York Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and his son Adam could stay free while they appeal corruption convictions.
The convictions of Silver, a Democrat, and Skelos, a Republican, have been the biggest wins in U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara's campaign against public corruption.
Bharara's office, which opposed continuing Silver's bail, declined comment.
Once among New York's most powerful politicians, Silver, 72, represented Manhattan's Lower East Side and was assembly speaker from 1994 to 2015.
He is appealing his November conviction and 12-year prison sentence for fraud, extortion and money laundering. Silver had been scheduled to begin his prison sentence on Aug. 31.
Prosecutors accused Silver of collecting close to $4 million of illegal fees for awarding state grants to a prominent cancer researcher and steering two real estate developers to a friend's law firm and supporting their interests on rent legislation.
In the McDonnell case, the Supreme Court narrowed the definition of what could justify a corruption prosecution, saying routine political activities such as arranging meetings or reaching out to public officials generally were not "official acts."
Prosecutors argued that the McDonnell case, decided June 27, had nothing to do with Silver's, and that any error in Caproni's jury instructions was harmless.
The judge partially agreed, calling Silver's case "factually almost nothing like McDonnell," and saying there was "no question" he undertook official acts.
But she said her jury charge omitted "key language" from the McDonnell case's definition of an official act and it was a "close question" whether its absence was harmless.
Silver's lawyers Steven Molo and Joel Cohen said they were "grateful" for the decision and look forward to Silver's appeal.
Caproni spared Silver most of a $1.75 million fine, saying he would suffer irreparable harm if forced to sell two homes and liquidate a retirement account.
She ordered him to pay $5,846 monthly on the fine, and extended a freeze on assets he may be required to forfeit.
(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Andrew Hay)