NEW YORK (AP) — Former state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver was convicted Monday in a $5 million corruption case that took down one of New York's most powerful politicians and stunned a capital that had become accustomed to scandal.
The jury verdict came after a three-week trial in which federal prosecutors claimed that the 71-year-old Democrat traded favors to enrich himself and then lied about it. The defense countered that the government was trying to criminalize the longtime routines of Albany politicians.
Even in a state capital where more than 30 lawmakers have left office facing criminal charges or allegations of ethical misconduct since 2000, the case against Silver was an extraordinary turn. An assemblyman since 1976, Silver was one of Albany's most storied political figures, a consummate backroom operator with the power to single-handedly decide the fate of legislation.
His prosecution was a marquee case in Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara's quest to clean up a state government he has called a "cauldron of corruption," an effort that has led to the ongoing corruption trial of Republican state Senate leader Dean Skelos.
Bharara said that with Monday's verdict, "Sheldon Silver got justice, and at long last, so did the people of New York."
Silver's lawyer, Steven Molo, said his client was disappointed and intended to appeal.
Silver himself showed no emotion as he was declared guilty of all counts against him: honest-services fraud, extortion and money laundering. He sat quietly afterward, with his hands folded in his lap. He faces the possibility of decades in prison. No sentencing date was set, and Silver remains free on bail.
With the conviction, Silver automatically loses his Assembly seat. He had kept it while fighting the charges, although after his arrest he was stripped of the speakership he had held since 1994.
The leader of the Assembly's Republican minority, Brian Kolb, called the conviction "a clear signal — again — to Albany: Enough is enough." Current Speaker Carl Heastie, a Democrat and Silver's successor, said he would "continue to work to root out corruption and demand more of elected officials when it comes to ethical conduct."
After Silver's arrest, the Legislature passed modest changes, including a requirement that lawmakers disclose more about their private income. But so far, lawmakers have balked at significant reforms, such as term limits, restrictions on legislators' outside income, tighter campaign finance limits and tougher enforcement of ethics rules.
Prosecutors had argued that they proved Silver traded his office for riches: $4 million in kickbacks from a cancer researcher and real estate developers. Prosecutors say Silver earned a million dollars more through investments.
"This was bribery. This was extortion. This was corruption," not politics as usual, Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew Goldstein told jurors.
Molo countered that Silver committed no crime: "There was no quid quo pro. He did not sell his office."
Silver did not testify and called no witnesses. Dr. Robert Taub told jurors he steered numerous patients with asbestos-related cancer to Silver's law firm, enabling the legislator to pocket $3 million in referral fees. Meanwhile, testimony and evidence revealed, Silver caused $500,000 in taxpayer funds to go to Taub's research projects and helped his son and daughter get a job and an internship.
Prosecutors said Silver delivered tax-abatement and rent-control legislation that favored developers while big developers hired a small law firm that secretly sent him $700,000 in fees.
Juror deliberations were eventful: Less than two hours after talks started last Tuesday, a juror tried to leave, accusing fellow jurors of claiming she failed to use common sense. Their discussions were briefly halted again Monday morning after another juror said he'd just learned his boss knows Silver. Both times, Judge Valerie Caproni advised jurors to resume work.
Meanwhile, Skelos and his son have been on trial in another Manhattan federal courtroom. Skelos is charged with badgering companies reliant upon his legislative clout to provide over $300,000 to his son.
Skelos and Silver were among a group dubbed the "three men in a room" in Albany, a nod to the longstanding practice of legislative leaders and the governor negotiating key bills behind closed doors. The day before Silver's arrest, Gov. Andrew Cuomo referred to Skelos, Silver and himself as the "three amigos."
In a measure of Silver's clout, he helped persuade Cuomo to disband a state anti-corruption commission that was investigating Silver's financial dealings and those of his colleagues.
In just the past five years, one Albany lawmaker was convicted of taking bribes from a carnival promoter. A second entered into a sham marriage in order to become a citizen. A third was accused of harassing female staffers and forcing one to touch cancerous tumors on his neck and armpit.
Associated Press writers Jennifer Peltz and Jake Pearson in New York and David Klepper in Albany, New York, contributed to this report.
"Today, justice was served. Corruption was discovered, investigated, and prosecuted, and the jury has spoken. With the allegations proven, it is time for the Legislature to take seriously the need for reform. There will be zero tolerance for the violation of the public trust in New York." --Gov. Andrew Cuomo
"Today's verdict is a reminder that the public good must be the only priority for elected officials. The people of New York expect and deserve better." --Mayor Bill de Blasio
"I am deeply saddened by the events that have taken place this year, culminating with today's conviction of former Speaker Sheldon Silver. Words simply aren't enough. We will continue to work to root out corruption and demand more of elected officials when it comes to ethical conduct. The Assembly Majority remains committed to exploring ideas and implementing reforms to restore trust in our government." --Assembly Speaker Carl E. Heastie
"Today's verdict finding Sheldon Silver guilty of public corruption on all counts is a scathing indication that Albany insiders have lost touch with reality. We find it telling that it took a federal prosecutor, and not New York State's own watchdog system, to call out the deep-seated corruption and sense of entitlement that allows a leader to use his public office for private gain." --Susan Lerner, New York Executive Director, Common Cause
"Today, Sheldon Silver got justice, and at long last, so did the people of New York." --U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara
"Today's verdict may be the end of one, sad chapter. But it must also be the beginning of a new chapter, in which public services triumphs over greed, and in which fidelity to voters triumphs over addiction to power. Our State leaders must use this day to finally put in place badly needed reforms so New Yorkers can have a State government they can be proud of." --Public Advocate Leticia James