Jury Begins Deliberating Sheldon Silver Case; Conflict Bubbles Up Right Away

Sheldon Silver and his lawyers leave court after a grueling day of closing arguments Monday.

Sheldon Silver and his lawyers leave court after a grueling day of closing arguments Monday.
Sheldon Silver and his lawyers leave court after a grueling day of closing arguments Monday.

The fate of Lower East Side Assemblyman Sheldon Silver is now in the hands of 12 men and women, jurors in the highest profile public corruption trial New York has seen in many years. This morning, federal judge Valerie Caproni took about an hour to read them detailed instructions on federal law. Deliberations then began in a case with major implications both in Albany and here in the neighborhood Mr. Silver has represented for four decades.

[There’s already trouble in the jury room. See the bottom of this post for details]

Yesterday, federal prosecutors and defense lawyers each took about three hours to deliver their closing arguments. The former Assembly speaker faces seven counts related to honest services fraud, extortion and money laundering. In order for a guilty verdict, jurors must conclude there was a quid pro quo — a scheme to exchange official government acts for payments disguised as legal fees.

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara sat in the back row of the courtroom for the entire day, occasionally huddling with his staff to discuss strategy. Albany insiders, current and former staff members of the assemblyman and a few downtown political activists were also on hand to observe the end of the three week trial. Mr. Silver chatted casually with supporters during breaks and appeared to be in good spirits.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew Goldstein began his closing argument by pointing to the assemblyman and telling the jury, “This case is about corruption, crimes committed by this man, Sheldon Silver.” The former power broker, he asserted, was corrupted by his “greed and lies, by bribery, kickbacks and extortion.”

He then went on to recap the federal case against Silver, which centers on two alleged schemes. In one of them, prosecutors say, he collected $3 million in referral fees in exchange for $500,000 in state grants awarded to cancer researcher Robert Taub. In the other, Silver is accused of pocketing $700,000 in legal fees from two big real estate developers while pushing through state legislation that benefited the firms. “What you heard during this trial is what Sheldon Silver secretly has been doing for years — cheating, lying and getting away with it,” Goldstein said.

silver molo media
Silver outside the courthouse last night with defense lawyer Steven Molo.

Defense attorney Steven Molo, on the other hand, told jurors that Silver “did not sell his office” and there was no quid pro quo. In a reference to the lawmaker’s resignation as speaker shortly after being arrested this past January, Molo said, “He has paid a tremendous price.” But Silver, he argued, has “fought for the people of New York for a long time, and thank God he is a fighter who is taking on these prosecutors. A lesser person would have folded.”

The defense did not call any of its own witnesses, but entered several documents into evidence before resting its case yesterday morning. In closings, Molo said prosecutors have taken things that are legal – things they find personally distasteful – and have “blown them up… into something nefarious.” For example, Molo told jurors, they don’t like Mr. Silver’s acceptance of referral fees, even though they are legally permissable. And he argued, the feds object to Mr. Silver’s private meetings with lobbyists and real estate developers, which are also allowed under the law.

Prosecutors ridiculed  Silver as being “motivated by money” in his dealings with Taub and the real estate developers, Glenwood Management and the Witkoff Group. But Molo contended, “It’s OK to be motivated by the money… Our legislators in the state of New York are part-time… They’re able to work and have other jobs,” adding “conflicts are inherent in this process.”  People might not care for the system, he said, but it is the law.

Sheldon Silver, Dr. Robert Taub. Photo: U.S. Attorneys Office.
Sheldon Silver, Dr. Robert Taub. Photo: U.S. Attorneys Office.

Molo highlighted an early draft of a nonprosecution agreement between the U.S. Attorney and Dr. Taub. He said the doctor refused to sign this version of the agreement, which called on him to say he sent personal injury cases to Silver “in exchange for” the grants. The final document also omitted the words, “at Silver’s request.”  Molo urged the jury to “consider the significance of those six words,” arguing, “There should be no doubt in your mind. There was no quid pro quo.”

As for the alleged real estate scheme, Molo called the prosecution’s case “bizarre.” In testimony, witnesses said Silver asked them to send property tax cases from Glenwood and the Witkoff Group to a small law firm, Goldberg & Iryami. They only learned later that Silver was receiving referral fees from those cases. Prosecutors have alleged that Silver manipulated the 2011 rent law to benefit Glenwood. “How could they be paying a bribe to take action in 2011,” Molo asked, when the developers didn’t find out until months later that Silver was receiving payments? He added, “This is a theory without any evidence.”

Prosecutors rejected Molo’s arguments, calling them distractions. Assistant U.S. Attorney Goldstein highlighted a portion of Taub’s testimony in which he said, “If I would ask him (Silver) to do something, he would ask for something in return.” One point the prosecutor emphasized repeatedly yesterday: federal law does not require the jury to conclude there was an explicit agreement in order to find the assemblyman guilty. “In fact,” he said, “there doesn’t have to be an agreement at all.” Goldstein said Silver’s “state of mind” is what matters. “When opportunities arose,” he argued, “Sheldon Silver kicked into action and used his official power.”

It’s irrelevant, he said, that the real estate firms were in the dark about Silver’s acceptance of legal fees. It was enough that the speaker of the assembly had asked the developers to send their cases to Jay Goldberg at Goldberg & Iryami. Furthermore, Goldstein added, Silver made sure Glenwood received hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks for their Manhattan apartment buildings. These official acts, he said, were completely independent of the rent law negotiations. At the end of the day, argued Goldstein, jurors should ask why Silver kept the details of his attorney fee payments secret from everyone. “Why do people lie, why do they keep secrets?,” asked Goldstein. His answer: “People do that when they know what they’re doing is wrong.”

In a rebuttal argument late in the day, prosecutor Howard Master said the Lower East Side assemblyman twisted a cherished American principle. “It wasn’t by the people or for the people. It was by Sheldon Silver for Sheldon Silver.”

UPDATE 1:39 p.m. It seems that deliberations have already become contentious. As the New York Times reports, a juror has asked to be excused. More details from a story the Times posted a short time ago:

In a highly unusual move, one juror sent a note to the judge shortly after noon pleading to be excused from the jury. Addressing the judge, Valerie E. Caproni, the unnamed juror wrote: “I am wondering if there is anyway I can be excused from this case, because I have a different opinion/view so far in this case and it is making me feel very, very uncomfortable.” The note was followed shortly by a second note, presumably from another unnamed juror, stating that one of the jurors was having difficulty distinguishing whether or not exchanging New York State funds for something in return is illegal… The judge said she would call for a break in proceedings while she reviewed the notes. Both notes were read into evidence.

UPDATE 1:50 p.m. And now this from the Daily News:

(Judge) Caproni said she would refer the jurors to her instructions, which she read Tuesday morning. “This is very early to get a note like this,” Caproni said. Both sides debated how the questions should be answered. Caproni said it appeared the jury was focusing on critical elements of Silver’s alleged illegally acts. “It seems like a very basic question,” she said. “It touches on quid pro quo and it touches on official action.” She also said she would not dismiss the juror.