After filing their complaint on Jan 22, government prosecutors had 30 days to obtain an indictment against the Lower East Side pol, according to his attorney. It hasn’t come down yet, but it may well happen during a court hearing scheduled for Feb. 23 (assuming Silver doesn’t request an extension) or even sooner, according to a spokesperson for Preet Bharara, U.S. Attorney in the Southern District of New York.
The complaint accuses Silver of pocketing nearly $4 million in kickbacks and bribes disguised as outside income through client referrals to two Manhattan law firms where he allegedly performed no work as a lawyer.
Stephen Gillers, an authority on legal ethics, tells us Silver will be indicted unless he strikes a deal. Governors from Connecticut, Illinois, Alabama and Virginia have been successfully prosecuted over the last several years in similar cases that involve allegations of “trading public favors for private gain,” the NYU Law School professor noted.
While the charges against Silver carry maximum penalties of 20 years on each count, Gillers said he doubts the assembly member will serve significant time if he’s convicted. “Assuming that the case goes to trial, he’d be looking at two to five years and a big fine,” he predicted.
Several of Silver’s Democratic colleagues in the assembly claim there’s not much beef in the government’s case against him. “He may be guilty of ethical charges but not criminal charges and they have to be proved beyond a reasonable doubt,” said Williamsburg-based assemblyman Joseph Lentol, who worked as an assistant district attorney in Kings County before he was first elected in 1972. “Some of them seem pretty serious, but if you analyze the charges, most are about [Silver’s] referral of cases to law firms. If he did no work there, he’s guilty of an ethical breach but it doesn’t have to rise to criminal behavior unless there’s an illegal quid pro quo.”
Gillers noted that the complaint does not charge Silver with illegal fee splitting. But a major charge by prosecutors accuses him of raking in more than $3 million from Weitz & Luxemberg, a Noho-based personal injury firm, through referrals of patients seeking lawsuits after contracting a rare form of cancer linked to asbestos. Prosecutors say Silver began soliciting the referrals starting in 2002 from a physician, Dr. Robert N.Taub, who operated a mesothelioma research center at Columbia University and sought funding from the law firm. Silver, the complaint charges, funneled two state grants totaling $500,000 to Dr. Taub’s center.
Lentol acknowledged that the referrals and the government grants to Dr. Taub’s center could be construed as an illegal quid pro quo. But he noted that clients referred by Dr. Taub went to other law firms as well. “All I’m saying is that Weitz & Luxemberg is one of the top law firms” in New York handling asbestos cases, he said during a telephone conversation. “Why wouldn’t Shelly recommend them?” He noted that Dr. Taub, whose research center has since been shut down by Columbia, is now a witness for the prosecution.
Silver, who was replaced as speaker by Bronx Democratic Party boss Carl Heastie and is now a rank and file assembly member, was unavailable for comment despite repeated efforts to reach him.
Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, another Democratic ally of Silver, believes the chastened assemblyman can continue to serve his constituents even if hit with an indictment. “What he couldn’t do was function as a speaker and he came to that conclusion himself.” Gottfried noted that Silver will be up for re-election in November of 2016 and could resign well before then “if he finds that he can’t effectively do his job. I’m not suggesting he will do that, but that’s a matter between him and his constituents.” (Gottfried, like Lentol, was a member of Silver’s leadership team in the assembly; both have been retained in those positions by Heastie.)
Some of Silver’s constituents in his home base appear to be angry and disappointed with him for the legal troubles that have left the 65th assembly district with diminished leadership.
“I don’t think people will get rid of him because of the cloud over his head, but if he’s convicted, he’s gone,” said Chad Marlow, a lawyer and member of Community Board 3. “The unfortunate thing about this is that our community is going to be severely hurt by the loss of Shelly Silver. He was the most powerful [political] figure to represent our community and he could have stayed on another ten years. If he did what’s he’s accused of doing, he has thrown away that benefit for tens of thousands of people he’s represented.”
“If there’s another Sandy, there will no Shelly to the rescue,” added Marlow, a member of CB 3’s committee on transportation and public safety and also a member of its task force on ethics, bylaws and procedure. “That’s what his alleged behavior may have cost us. I don’t think he’ll ever come fully back even if he’s fully exonerated. There will always be [people] who will think he’s a crook. His reputation has been tarnished. You can’t completely recover from something like this and he doesn’t seem to care.”
Others in and outside of the downtown community remain fiercely loyal to Silver, who was first elected in 1976 and served as speaker for more than 20 years. Informed that one of Silver’s detractors had said the embattled power broker couldn’t consider himself a political progressive because of his alleged ethical lapses, veteran Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf shouted, “Absolute poppycock! Shelly has done extraordinary things for the state! How about same-sex marriage? How about senior citizen protection and [regulated] rent protection? How about universal pre-K? That started with Shelly!”
Downtown community activist Paul Hovitz, a retired special ed teacher who is co-chair of the youth committee for Community Board 1 and president of the Southbridge Tower Shareholders Association, said Silver has already been convicted in the press. But he observes that other high-profile pols, such as Harlem congressman Charles Rangel, have survived scandals and investigations. Rep. Michael Grimm of Staten Island, he noted, was re-elected after being indicted and only forced out after his conviction.
“If Shelly is found guilty, he will have to pay the price because that’s how our system works,” Hovitz said. “But until then, I’m not going to abandon my support and gratitude to him.” He described Silver’s resignation as speaker as a “body blow” to his community. “We go from having the most powerful Democrat in New York State to the possibility of a junior member with no clout and that does not bode well for downtown. We have enjoyed a great deal of support from Shelly as speaker which he will maintain as an assembly person but it’s clear he won’t have the same impact—particularly when it comes to new schools which we’ve created with Shelly’s leadership.”
Not surprisingly, downtowners are bandying about names of potential replacements should Silver leave office this year and Governor Cuomo call for a special election. These include 65th Assembly District leader Paul Newell, who challenged Silver in 2008; Consumer Affairs Commissioner Julie Menin and civil rights attorney Jenifer Rajkumar, who unsuccessfully opposed Council Member Margaret Chin in 2012, as well as Chin herself. And that’s for starters. Stay tuned.