Federal Judge Criticizes U.S. Attorney Bharara Over Conduct in Silver Case

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara.

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara.
U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara.

A federal judge on Friday declined to dismiss corruption charges against Lower East Side Assemblyman Sheldon Silver but scolded U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara over statements he made before and following the former Assembly Speaker’s arrest.

Silver, who was forced to resign his leadership position in January, faces fraud and extortion charges. His lawyers asked Judge Valerie Caproni to throw out the case because Bharara’s comments, they argued, undermined their client’s right to a fair trial.

Caproni said there was no “legal rationale for dismissal,” but at the same time, the judge said she does not “condone the government’s brinksmanship relative to the defendant’s fair trial rights, or the media blitz orchestrated by the U.S. attorney’s office.” Citing a press conference held by Bharara the day Silver was arrested and several Twitter posts, Caponi added:

In this case the U.S. attorney, while castigating politicians in Albany for playing fast and loose with the ethical rules that govern their conduct, strayed so close to the edge of the rules governing his own conduct that defendant Sheldon Silver has a non-frivolous argument that he fell over the edge to the defendant’s prejudice.

Sheldon Silver attended a ribbon cutting ceremony at Gouverneur Health in March.
Sheldon Silver attended a ribbon cutting ceremony at Gouverneur Health in March.

The judge said she found it “troubling” that the federal prosecutor appeared to be bundling “together unproven allegations regarding the defendant with broader commentary on corruption and a lack of transparency in certain aspects of New York State politics.” While prosecutors are allowed to speak publicly about active cases, the judge asserted that “remarks that associate the accused with a long line of convicted criminals… tend to blur the distinction between legitimate public commentary and improper opinion.” Caproni added:

A far more prudent course — and one that would have been far more respectful of the defendant’s presumption of innocence and fair trial rights — would have been to delay the arrest until after the U.S. attorney’s speech and for the U.S. attorney to stay focused on politicians who have actually been convicted.

In a statement, Silver’s attorneys said they “are pleased that the court took exception to the conduct of the United States Attorney and cautioned against future use of the tactics employed against Mr. Silver. We look forward to continuing our attack on the merits of the case and our client’s ultimate vindication.” Silver continues to serve as an Assemblyman representing the Lower East Side and other neighborhoods in Lower Manhattan.

Bharara declined to comment.