Prosecutors made their closing arguments Monday in the public corruption case against Sheldon Silver, the former state Assembly speaker with extremely close ties to the real estate industry.
U.S. District Attorney Preet Bharara’s office claims the veteran lawmaker sold out to real estate interests in exchange for kickbacks from a real estate tax law firm.
Silver’s defense team, while never denying the payments, argued they amounted to nothing more than referral fees, which members of the part-time Legislature are legally allowed to accept.
The prosecution called several key witnesses, among them developer Steve Witkoff and executives from Leonard Litwin’s Glenwood Management. Glenwood’s Richard Runes testified that – for a time – the payments to Silver were kept secret from them, and when they were discovered the company feared retribution should executives cut ties with the lawmaker.
“If you hold a tiger by the tail, you have a difficult choice to make: whether to let go or not. It was a difficult situation. We had the choice of terminating the relationship,” Runes told jurors, according to the New York Post.
“It’s not a good thing to alienate any legislative leader,” he added. “Theoretically, the speaker could suggest or negotiate changes that would be bad for our business model.’’
None of the prosecution’s witnesses, however, testified there was an explicit quid pro quo, a point the New York Times said could be critical in the case’s outcome.
“This is of particular importance in public corruption cases, where the rules changed about five years ago, after the Supreme Court imposed the requirement in honest services fraud cases that the government prove a quid pro quo,” the paper reported.
Silver’s team is expected to make its closing arguments this afternoon, with the case going to the jury Tuesday. Here’s a look back at the events leading up to this point:
Dec. 29, 2014: The Times reports that federal investigators are probing Silver over payments he received for referring real estate clients to the tax certiorari law firm of Goldberg & Iryami.
A key figure in the case, Developer 1, is later identified as Leonard Litwin’s Glenwood Management, the state’s biggest political contributor.
Jan. 22: Silver is arrested and charged on five counts of fraud and corruption in a 35-page complaint alleging the lawmaker made millions of dollars on the side through illegal kickbacks.
In addition to allegedly steering real estate clients to Goldberg & Iryami in exchange for payments and preferential treatment, prosecutors argued that Silver also steered state funding toward a Columbia University mesothelioma doctor, who in turn sent his patients to Weitz & Luxenberg, a law firm with ties to Silver.
“We’re disappointed that the prosecutors have chosen to proceed with these meritless criminal charges,” Silver’s defense team said in a statement at the time of his arrest. “That said, Mr. Silver looks forward to responding to them — in court — and ultimately his full exoneration.”
Feb. 19: A grand jury indicts Silver on three counts of mail fraud, wire fraud and extortion under the color of official right.
Feb. 24: Silver pleads not guilty to the charges, and his attorney accuses Bharara of making prejudicial statements in the press and asks to have the case thrown out. Judge Valerie E. Caproni later denies the request, but chides the federal prosecutor for putting together a “media blitz” in the days following Silver’s arrest.
Oct. 16: Judge Caproni rules that the prosecution can introduce evidence showing Silver took official action to block a methadone clinic from relocating near one of Glenwood’s buildings in Lower Manhattan.
“The charge is that he invoked his official position as the opportunities arose,” prosecutor James McDonald told the judge.
In finding the evidence admissible, Caproni said the defense could argue that Silver was simply serving his constituency, adding that “it’s up to the jury.”
Oct. 20: Caproni denies Silver’s attempt to stop prosecutors from presenting campaign contributions from Glenwood as evidence.
“In this case, Glenwood’s campaign contributions are relevant to Glenwood’s motive to enter into an alleged quid pro quo relationship with Silver, even if the contributions themselves were not part of the quid pro quo exchange,” Caproni’s order read.
Nov. 2 and Nov. 3: Jury selection kicks off, and both sides begin with their opening statements.
“Power. Greed. Corruption,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Carrie Cohen said as she began her opening statements, according to the New York Observer. “This is a case about a powerful politician who betrayed those he was supposed to serve to line his pockets.”
Defense attorney Steven Molo, however, argued that Silver’s actions did not amount to a criminal offense.
“It makes some people uncomfortable, but that is the system New York State has chosen, and it is not a crime,” he said, according to the Observer. “The prosecutors are trying to make it a crime, but it’s not.”
Nov. 13: Albany lobbyist Brian Meara testifies that he set up a June 2011 meeting between Silver and Glenwood executive Richard Runes, who presented a proposal for a new rent-regulation law that was favorable to the developer.
“Do you remember Mr. Silver’s reaction?” prosecutor Howard Master asked, according to the New York Post.
“He didn’t say yes; he didn’t say no. He probably said, ‘I hear you,’ and that was typical,” replied Meara.
“How satisfied was Glenwood with the legislative package that was offered?” Master asked.
“They were satisfied,” Meara said.
Following the meeting, Albany passed laws extending the 421a tax abatement and preventing the city from putting in stronger rent regulations.
Nov. 16: Runes tells prosecutors he and his employer felt trapped when they discovered they had been unwittingly paying legal fees to Silver.
Runes said Litwin personally made the decision to remove Silver’s name form a public document that would have disclosed the fee-sharing arrangement. Company executives, he said, were uneasy about the arrangement, but feared retribution from Silver if they made a row over it.
Nov. 17: Developer Steve Witkoff testifies that he, too, hired Iryami & Goldberg. Witkoff said he was never told the firm was splitting fees with Silver.
Nov. 23: The prosecution spends three hours summing up its case against Silver.
“Sheldon Silver was anything but honest,” prosecutor Howard Goldstein said, according to Newsday. “His services were corrupted by greed and lies.”