Prosecution Witnesses: Sheldon Silver Was the “Ultimate Decision Maker”

Sheldon Silver leaves the courthouse in Lower Manhattan during his first trial.

Sheldon Silver leaves the courthouse in Lower Manhattan last week.
Sheldon Silver leaves the courthouse in Lower Manhattan last week.

Here’s the latest from Assemblyman Sheldon Silver’s federal corruption trial, now in its second week.

This morning, jurors heard from Gary Klein, managing attorney for Weitz & Luxenberg, the law firm that employed Silver until earlier this year. Last week, Dr. Robert Taub testified that he referred up to 50 victims of mesothelioma to the law firm in the hopes that Silver would fund his cancer research. The first personal injury case came in 2003, when patient Catherine O’Leary found her way to Weitz & Luxenberg. Klein said Silver received a referral fee of $176,043 in the O’Leary case. In total, the former speaker collected $3.4 million in referral fees related to mesothelioma lawsuits. Silver pocketed another $800,000 for referring negligence cases.

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

Prosecutors allege Silver had a deal with Dr. Taub to exchange referrals for $500,000 in state grants. Assistant U.S. Attorney Howard Master asked, “Did he ever tell you he was considering sending state money to Dr. Taub?”  Klein said it was never discussed.

On Monday, several witnesses testified about Silver’s almost complete control in awarding discretionary money. Budget staffer Victor Franco said details regarding funding awards from the speaker were omitted from even internal reports. In his initial testimony late last week, Franco called Silver “the ultimate decision-maker. ”

Prosecutor: “What, if any steps, Mr. Franco, did you take to in fact conceal or not reveal the amount of discretionary funding that Sheldon Silver had allocated to items of his own choosing?

Franco: “Typically it was our protocol not to print reports or anything that was specifically related to the speaker.”

Prosecutor: “How would you carry out that protocol?”

Franco: “If it was an Excel spreadsheet, we would suppress the line that had his name on it. Stuff like that.”

A former Assembly budget official, Steven August, was also called to the stand. The New York Times recapped his testimony:

Mr. August described attending meetings at which (Silver) would say “yes” or “no” to countless money requests, almost always without further discussion. If Mr. Silver wanted to proceed, “we would move forward and process the request,” Mr. August testified. Mr. August said that he was unaware of any public disclosures of the discretionary Health Department grants (where the Taub funding came from), and that he did not recall any case in which an agency rejected an application like the one approved by the Assembly for Dr. Taub.

Jurors saw a note written by Dean Fuleihan, a top aide to Silver. It was scrawled on a funding request from Dr. Taub and read, “Shelly is very interested in this. Please include.” Here’s how Politico New York characterized the testimony on this point:

August said the note did not strike him as unusual. That’s an important point for the defense team, which is seeking to prove Taub received no special treatment from the former speaker, and that the two grants were for his research not in exchange for clients to the law firm where Silver worked, and from which he received millions of dollars in referral fees. Silver often approved money for cancer research and had a particular interest in funding mesothelioma research because it impacted survivors of the 9/11 attacks, which occurred in his Lower Manhattan district. Nor, according to Monday’s testimony, is it unusual for the speaker to receive personal letters from organizations seeking assistance. In fact, he received thousands, several of his former aides testified.

During cross-examination of the witnesses, the defense sought to show that Silver acted legally and appropriately. Franco acknowledged that the speaker would consult staff members and that many grants were awarded outside the assemblyman’s Lower East Side district.

Testimony was elicited from Dennis Whalen, a former health department official, that grants were reviewed by state regulators. He agreed with a defense lawyer who indicated that about 20 different state officials were involved in the review process. During direct testimony, however, Whalen explained, “We were the banker and the bookkeeper… We didn’t have any say over who got the money or how much.”

During portions of yesterday’s court session, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara sat in the back of the room, observing his prosecutors question witnesses.