NEW YORK (AP) — The prosecution of former New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver resulted after he let "power, greed, corruption" make him wealthy, a prosecutor said Tuesday at the start of a trial expected to put Albany politics under a judicial microscope.
In her opening statement, Assistant U.S. Attorney Carrie Cohen pointed across the courtroom toward Silver as she accused the Democrat of earning $5 million illegally.
"He made himself rich," Cohen said as she claimed Silver used his law license to make nearly $4 million by disguising bribes and kickbacks as legal fees. She said he made another million by investing the ill-gotten money.
Statements in Silver's defense were to follow. He has pleaded not guilty, saying he will be vindicated at a trial that is expected to last up to six weeks. His lawyers say prosecutors are unjustly criminalizing practices long sanctioned in Albany.
The charges have increased scrutiny of politicians in Albany, where power has long been concentrated in the hands of the Assembly speaker, the Senate president and the governor.
New York's former Senate leader, Dean Skelos, goes to trial later this month on charges of extortion and soliciting bribes. He stepped down from the post after his spring arrest and has said he will be found innocent.
Silver quit his speaker post after his arrest but retained his Assembly seat.
In a packed Manhattan courtroom, Cohen launched the government's case with three words: "Power, greed, corruption."
She later added: "That's what this case is about."
In a nod to the approach the government anticipates the defense to take, she said: "This was not politics as usual. This was bribes and kickbacks."
Cohen said Silver used his law license to disguise his dirty dealing.
"Year after year after year, Sheldon Silver was on the take," the prosecutor said. She added that he traded the power of his office in two separate schemes to enrich himself.
In one, he collected millions of dollars in referral fees for lining up state grants for a doctor's research, she said. In another, he pocketed even more through large fees he received by using his political clout to steer powerful developers to a law firm as clients, Cohen said.
"For years, Sheldon Silver went out of his way to hide the scheme. He told lie after lie and kept secret after secret," Cohen said.
As the prosecutor spoke, Silver sometimes looked toward the jury but at other times he looked straight ahead, in the direction of a large monitor that provided him with an instant transcript of the trial.
Seven top New York lawmakers have been convicted or indicted in the past six years.
In all, 31 lawmakers have been convicted of crimes or have left public service amid allegations of ethical misconduct since 2000, according to a tally kept by the good-government group Citizens Union.