Ex-New York Assembly speaker's law firm income scrutinized

AP News
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Posted: Nov 10, 2015 6:45 PM

NEW YORK (AP) — A law firm that hired former New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver more than 10 years ago to raise its profile ended up paying him nearly $3.4 million for asbestos cancer cases on which he never worked, lawyers with the firm testified on Tuesday.

The lawyers told jurors at Silver's corruption trial in federal court in Manhattan that the windfall was a legitimate reward for bringing in valuable new clients. Prosecutors sought to use the testimony as evidence that the once-powerful Democrat and lawyer exploited the firm to make a fortune on a bribery scheme involving a cancer researcher.

Silver, 71, who was arrested in January, has pleaded not guilty to charges that he amassed $5 million in elicit income through extortion and bribery in two decades as speaker. His lawyers claim overzealous prosecutors are attempting to criminalize how politics is practiced in Albany.

Over the years, Silver referred dozens of potential clients — known as "leads" — to the Weitz & Luxenberg law firm by passing along slips of paper with their contact information, one of the lawyers, Charles Ferguson, testified. Asked by a prosecutor if Silver showed any interest in the cases beyond that point, Ferguson responded, "Really none."

But Silver's legal colleagues also testified that it wasn't unusual in their field for firms to pay out a third of the standard 30 percent contingency cut from asbestos settlements as a finder's fee. One of the first checks written to Silver in 2005 totaled $176,048.

Firm partner Arthur Luxenberg testified that he hired Silver because he thought the speaker's "power" and "prestige" would "help the name of the firm." Luxenberg and Silver, who became close friends over the years, agreed to avoid any conflicts of interest over Silver's official position by not taking any state-related business.

The partner said that at some point, he became aware that Silver was referring patients of Dr. Robert Taub, a prominent Columbia University researcher, to the firm. But he claimed he was never told that Silver was channeling $500,000 in state grants to Taub's research projects — an arrangement prosecutors claim was an illicit quid pro quo that the legislator concealed through loopholes in the budgetary process.

When Taub sought more money, Silver told him, "I can't do that anymore," the doctor testified last week. However, Taub told a colleague in an email: "I will keep giving cases to Shelly because I may need him in the future — he is the most powerful man in New York State."

Silver returned the favor by getting Taub's son a job at a charity and his daughter an internship at a state court, prosecutors say.

The lawmaker quit his speaker post after his arrest but retained his Assembly seat.

The trial is off on Wednesday and resumes Thursday.