NEW YORK — Swooping out of a clammy July sky, unannounced, was the specter of Sheldon Silver, the former speaker of the New York state Assembly and, as of Thursday morning, a former felon. A federal appeals court overturned his convictions for bribery and money laundering.
One more time, Silver was able to beat big numbers with smaller ones.
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Hardly anyone ever voted for him — just 11,455 people in 2014, the last time he ran for office. In a state of 20 million, that total would have been barely a pimple on the body politic, except for one critical quality that has carried Silver through his time as a politician and convicted plunderer.
He had a genius for leveraging obscurity.
In taking power as Assembly speaker in 1994, he persuaded enough of the roughly 99 Democrats in the chamber to give him the speakership. Suddenly, he was the negotiating equal of a succession of leaders of the state Senate and governors from both parties.
Andrew M. Cuomo may have been re-elected governor on the back of 2 million votes in 2014, but in getting half of 1 percent as many votes, Silver could play just as big as Cuomo.
Look now to the criminal case that Silver has, for the moment, beaten. The theme continues.
Each legislative chamber had a pot of health care money that, for a few years, the leadership alone controlled. That gave Silver a wizard’s power. A doctor studying mesothelioma, a form of cancer caused by asbestos exposure, sought support from Silver for research into the illness. Silver made two grants of $250,000 each to the doctor’s work.
Now the magic begins. Silver was able to turn $500,000 of state money into $3 million in private income for himself.
Silver held a “job” with a law firm that specialized in lawsuits on behalf of people with mesothelioma; the use of the word “job” requires quotation marks as tweezers. It consisted of referring people with mesothelioma to the firm. When the clients or their families got an award, Silver received a cut of the law firm’s fee. He did not file papers, meet with clients, go to court or do anything that remotely resembled legal work. Nevertheless, he was paid $3 million in referral fees.
The hardest part was finding patients who had the disease, but not for Silver: He had the mesothelioma doctor, the one with the state grants, to send him patients.
“I will keep giving cases to Shelly because I may need him in the future — he is the most powerful man in New York state,” the doctor, Robert Taub, wrote in an email to a colleague in 2010.
In the official paperwork, the grants looked like the kind of research efforts the government might be funding; altruism was slapped on like a coat of shellac.
Taub wrote: “As the Bible says, we need to get past the time when ‘Each man does as is righteous in his own eyes.’ No enterprise (excluding patient care) ever, ever grew or succeeded as a result of pure righteousness. Usually success is propelled by greed, envy, or both.”
Silver’s other “job” — there’s that word again — was with a tiny law firm that appealed property tax rulings. That firm paid him referral fees for legal business that came from large developers who wanted to keep Silver happy. The developers wanted Silver’s protection for tax breaks and rent laws. In all, he was paid $835,000, once again for absolutely no legal work.
This might look like straight-up bribery, but the federal appeals court found that some of the most blatant official actions by Silver took place so long ago that they were beyond the statute of limitations. Everyone knew that at the time of the trial, but the prosecutors argued that other actions by Silver took place in time to be covered by the law, and thus made the whole ugly sequence part of a continuing scheme. But the more recent acts were pretty small beer: an honorary proclamation, for instance, or helping family members with jobs and internships. A Supreme Court ruling in another case, which came after the Silver trial, held that those kinds of acts might not be covered by bribery law. Had the Silver jury known that, the appeals court ruled, it might not have agreed that they were part of a continuing scheme.
So three judges overturned 12 jurors.
Once again, Silver has won with small numbers.