It did not take long for the prosecution in Sheldon Silver’s federal corruption trial to call its star witness. Dr. Robert Taub, a cancer researcher at Columbia University, testified most of the day yesterday, and he’s continuing to undergo cross-examination today.
Taub suggested that he and the former speaker of the New York assembly had an unspoken understanding that lucrative patient referrals to Silver’s law firm were a prerequisite for state grants to fund the Columbia Mesothelioma Center. But when asked by the defense whether there was an explicit agreement to exchange patients for grants, Taub said, “No.”
Silver faces fraud, extortion and money laundering charges as the result of two alleged schemes. Taub is at the center of one of them. The judge has already told jurors they must conclude that there was a “quid pro quo” in order to return a guilty verdict.
In testimony yesterday, Taub explained how he came to know Sheldon Silver in the 1980s and become reaquainted with him in 2003. As a fierce advocate for victims of mesothelioma, he was bothered by the fact that Weitz & Luxenberg, one of the main law firms handling asbestos-related personal injury lawsuits, did not make charitable donations to cancer research. Taub knew that Silver was “of counsel” at the firm, so he asked a mutual friend, Albany insider Daniel Chill, to make introductions.
Taub said Silver told him Weitz & Luxenberg was unlikely to make substantial donations to the mesothelioma center. But one or two weeks later, the doctor indicated, he heard through Chill that Silver was interested in receiving patient referrals. The jury was not allowed to hear details after the judge ruled that conversations Taub was not a part of amounted to hearsay.
Mesothelioma cases are extremely lucrative. On average, jury awards are in the $1-2 million range. It is Weitz & Luxemberg’s practice to take one-third of the total payout and to pay the referring attorney a third of that amount. Taub said he began sending cases to Silver. When there was a patient to refer, he’d call the assemblyman’s office. Silver usually returned the call personally. “I wanted to maintain a relationship with him so that he would be incentivized to be an advocate for mesothelioma research and he would help us with funding for mesothelioma research,” Taub explained. Prosecutors believe the assemblyman collected $3 million over the years from the Taub referrals.
At a meeting in Albany in 2005, Taub testified, Silver signaled his willingness to consider a state grant. Taub wrote a letter, which was introduced into evidence yesterday. It included a handwritten note that read, “Shelly is very interested in this.” Two grants were ultimately awarded in 2005 and 2006, for a total of $500,000. Taub said very little was required of him by the State Health Department before the money was allocated or afterward. In remarks that took place with the jury out of the room, Judge Valerie Caproni observed, “There was a shocking lack of oversight of the grant money they gave.”
At about the time of Silver’s inauguration in 2005, Taub testified, Silver told him not to inform Daniel Chill about any future referrals being made to Weitz & Luxenberg. “I didn’t know what to make of it actually,” Taub said. “He just wanted it kept between me and Mr. Silver, between me and him.”
In 2007, Taub applied for a third grant but was rejected. He said Silver told him, “I can’t do this anymore.” Previously, prosecutors indicated that the health care fund Silver used to fund the cancer center ran out of money. Three years later, Taub began referring patients to another law firm, one that was giving the cancer center millions of dollars in donations.
Silver continued to receive some referrals, just not as many. One day in 2010, the doctor said Silver dropped by his office. “He said he’s not getting as many referrals as before,” Taub testified. The doctor explained that cases were going to the more generous law firm. He was asked whether Silver was specifically told the referrals slowed because the state money had dried up. “I don’t know if I said because of that, but that was certainly the inference that he should draw,” Taub testified. Silver later arranged for internships and jobs for Taub’s children and helped fund his wife’s non-profit organization.
When federal authorities first visited Taub’s home on the Upper West Side at 6 a.m. one day in 2014, he lied about the referrals. “I was terrified and panicked, and I irrationally wanted to divorce myself” from the matter, Taub said. At a later time, he realized it was a mistake, so he went to prosecutors and told them everything he knew. Taub signed a nonprosecution agreement in exchange for his testimony.
During questioning yesterday afternoon by defense attorney Steven Molo, Taub admitted there was never any direct linkage between the state grants and the patient referrals. Silver’s lawyer asked, “You did not have an explicit agreement to exchange patients for grants, did you?” And Taub replied, “I did not.”
Prosecutors have argued that Silver worked hard to keep his relationship with Dr. Taub secret. But Molo pointed out that Silver appeared in public with the doctor at a dinner for the American Cancer Society. Taub was one of several doctors who received awards from the assembly.
More to come…