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BY MARY REINHOLZ
About an hour before the second sentencing of former state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a slew of press people packed the jury box in Room 443 of the U.S. District Courthouse at 40 Foley Square on July 27, preparing for a white-collar crime story to unfold.
Paparazzi with cameras waited outside for a glimpse of the ailing 74-year-old defendant, a Democrat and son of Russian immigrants who has lived his whole life on the Lower East Side.
He showed up around 1:15 pm on an overcast Friday afternoon, a straw fedora in hand, walking slowly, and then stood for screening inside the first floor of the august building, his face somber and showing signs of strain.
Then, with his lawyer and two reporters tagging along (including this one), Silver, who had been the most powerful politician in the New York State Legislature before his 2015 arrest on corruption charges, took the elevator up four floors and entered the courtroom of federal Judge Valerie Caproni. She had sentenced him to 12 years after his first conviction in 2015.
Back then, Caproni claimed she wanted to send a message to New York politicians that they could “spend their golden years in an orange jumpsuit” if they got greedy and abused the public trust.
Silver’s first conviction was overturned on appeal. This time around, Silver was found guilty again of all seven counts of honest-services fraud and extortion in a two-week May trial. Caproni said she had decided against repeating her first sentence, stating it was “longer than necessary to accomplish the goals of sentencing.”
Her second sentence lopped off five years from the first, giving Silver seven years behind bars, with incarceration to begin on Oct. 5. It’s punishment for illicitly obtaining some $4 million in referral fees from two Manhattan law firms in exchange for promoting state actions favorable to Dr. Robert N. Taub, a former Columbia University cancer researcher who served as the government’s star witness; and for two real estate developers, Glenwood Management and the Witkoff Group, who sought Silver’s support in obtaining tax legislation. Silver also made an additional $1 million by investing his ill-gotten gains, the government said. Caproni fined him $1.75 million for his felonies and said he must forfeit at least $3 million.
“This crime was driven by unmitigated greed,” Caproni said of Silver’s two schemes involving the law firms of Weitz & Luxemberg and Goldberg & Irami. Weitz & Luxemberg, which handles mesothelioma cases, paid Silver $120,000 a year for an alleged no-show job as counsel, plus some $3 million for referrals over about a decade, many coming from the aforementioned Taub, who received two state healthcare grants promoted by Silver that totaled $500,000. Goldberg & Irami, a small Downtown law firm, paid the former speaker nearly $1 million, according to prosecutors. Jay Goldberg, one of the firm’s founders, had been Silver’s counsel in the Assembly and is a childhood friend.
“The bottom line is that Silver wanted to seem to be a man of the people while using his public position to line his own pockets,” Caproni stated.
She rejected a request for leniency by Michael Fineberg, Silver’s attorney, who requested that Silver “atone” for his crimes by a short sentence followed by public service, helping people navigate the state bureaucracy, “instead of warehousing him in a facility where he will wither away forgotten.”
But Caproni clearly tempered justice with mercy, after receiving a letter from the former pol, a prostate cancer survivor, saying he didn’t want to die in prison, and after reviewing an outpouring of support for him from family members, friends and constituents. She noted that when it came to constituent service, Silver conducted himself as a “gifted politician who went beyond the call of duty many times.”
Her softer sentence surprised some in the legal community. Manhattan attorney Emily Jane Goodman, a former New York State Supreme Court Justice, said, “I don’t know why Judge Caproni decided to soften the blow but it was the right thing to do. Perhaps that elusive element of empathy — which is not sympathy and is not approval — kicked in. Of course she had to consider many different aspects: the probation report, input and letters she received, including from Sheldon Silver himself, his age and health, and years of public service despite the inglorious end. And maybe she saw the facts or strength of the case differently even though there was [another] conviction.”
Federal prosecutors from the Southern District had sought more than 14 years jail time for Silver, which would have been the longest sentence for any part-time New York legislator caught in the crosshairs of the law. Nevertheless, Geoffrey Berman, interim U.S. attorney for the Southern District, a Republican donor to Donald Trump and a former law partner of Rudolph Giuliani, said he hoped the “fittingly stiff sentence sends a clear message: Brokering official favors for your personal benefit is illegal and will result in prison time.”
Throughout the sentencing, which lasted more than an hour, Silver sat stoically beside his lawyer Fineberg. At one point, he rose to tell Caproni, “I ask for your mercy,” and later said he had “brought great distrust to New York government. I am extremely, extremely remorseful,” he said, adding, “Going forward, I fear I will continue to be ridiculed, shamed by the stain upon me.”
Silver did not once admit to committing a crime, however. Asked if he intended to appeal, Silver replied softly, “Most certainly, we will appeal.”
Silver began his career as an assemblymember in 1976, rising to become the Assembly’s speaker in 1994. He remained in that influential position until his arrest in 2015 on corruption charged leveled by then U.S. Attorney for the Southern District Preet Bharara, which resulted in his first conviction.
In 2017 a three-judge state Appellate Division panel of the Second Circuit overturned Silver’s first conviction, on the basis that Caproni had failed to instruct the jury on a narrower definition of corruption charges against public officials, in light of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling vacating a conviction for public corruption against former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell and his wife.
Undeterred, prosecutors retried Silver, securing a second conviction, and on July 27, a second jail sentence.