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Sitting in on the Corruption Trials of Two of New York's Most Powerful Politicians

For the past few weeks, New Yorkers have had a rare privilege: They've been able to watch not one, but two legislative leaders fight federal charges in court.

by John Surico
Nov 25 2015, 1:40pm

Sheldon Silver in 2011. Photo via Flickr user Zack Seward

If you live in New York right now, you have a dubious honor citizens of no other state can share: You can sit in on corruption trials of the top two men in the legislature.

Earlier this year, two of Albany's biggest players—Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (a Democrat), and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (a Republican)—were booked on federal charges of abusing their power, a sad situation that might lead one to conclude that New York is the most corrupt state in the nation. For the last few weeks, the state capital's dirty laundry has been airing out in the Southern District federal court in Downtown Manhattan, a rare political moment that you kind of have to see to truly believe.

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On Monday, I went to the courthouse to catch the prosecution's closing statement against Silver. The longtime Assembly Speaker from Manhattan's Lower East Side had been the first target of US Attorney Preet Bharara's double-edged sting, and so he started his trial earlier than Skelos, in October. Today would be a sort of primer on everything that had come before, and given the complexity of the charges, there's a lot of shit to sift through. So some context is needed:

A few years ago, Governor Andrew Cuomo swore to clean up a state legislature that had become synonymous with kickbacks and established the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption in 2013. With subpoena power in hand, the team of prosecutors sought to put a magnifying glass on outside income of legislators and the "quid pro quo" culture of politicians trading money for favors that persists in Albany.

As has been reported, the Commission began to hone in on what Bharara has derided as "the three men in the room" nature of state government, in which Cuomo, Silver, and Skelos would hammer out back-room deals in an effort to pass budgets on time. Before long, this resulted in a conflict: The governor's office, the New York Times would later write, "deeply compromised the panel's work, objecting whenever the commission focused on groups with ties to Mr. Cuomo or on issues that might reflect poorly on him." In March, the governor shut down the investigation he himself had launched, and that was the end of that. Until the US Attorney's Office stepped in.

Bharara picked up where Moreland left off, and ended up with the indictments of Silver and Skelos in the months after. "Stay tuned," he famously said after announcing Silver's charges, as if forewarning New Yorkers that their elected leaders were no longer immune to prosecution.

Silver's case is primarily focused on referral fees Silver received as a private lawyer from clients who were directly connected to his legislative business. These clients include a Columbia University doctor named Robert Taub, and a huge Manhattan real estate developer called Glenwood Management. Silver is now on trial for seven charges ranging from extortion to dishonesty, all of which were excruciatingly explained for three hours straight in a packed courtroom on Monday morning.

The prosecution is basically arguing that Silver received millions in exchange for legislative goodies. In Taub's case, the doctor allegedly referred medical malpractice clients to Silver's firm, Weitz & Luxenberg, then received Silver-directed state grants for the doctor's mesothelioma research. For Glenwood, that meant a retainer Silver allegedly secretly held in exchange for his help in securing huge tax breaks and ensuring that developer-friendly policies would continue in Albany.

According to federal prosecutor Andrew Goldstein, the Speaker did it all through straight-up fabrication. "He lied repeatedly, and he lied to everyone," Goldstein said sternly to the jury, showing off an interview in which Silver tells a reporter that his outside income came from helping out the common man with injury lawsuits. "And why do people lie? Because usually, they have something to hide."

The prosecution threw up an onslaught of listicles to get its point across, with some as surreally named as "Nine Reasons Why You Know Silver is Guilty of the Asbestos Scheme" (one of the reasons: "common sense"). One chart even clearly listed "The Quid" and "The Quo," for the more Latin-weary jurors. Mixing BuzzFeed-speak with articles, testimony transcripts, and emails—one of which showed Taub writing "[Silver] is the most powerful man in New York State"—the lawyer did an great job of breaking down the charges against Silver to jurors who may have had trouble following the complicated case.

As Silver sat stoically throughout, staring at Goldstein while he delivered his remarks, the prosecutor ended his speech by shooting for simplicity. "This, ladies and gentlemen, is bribery. This was extortion," he said. "This was corruption, the real deal. Do not let it stand." One jury nodded her head as if in agreement.

(Later, just a couple hours into deliberation, one juror would ask to be excused because she was "stressed out." The judge refused that request.)

While the court broke for lunch, I walked around the corner to the federal courthouse at 500 Pearl Street, where the second Albany trial was taking place. On the 18th floor, in a much smaller and less crowded courtroom, the participants and observers sat down for the afternoon processions in Dean Skelos's trial.

The court had just resumed Rent Stabilization Association President Joe Strasburg's testimony when I got there. The prosecutors asked Strasburg to detail the budget proceedings, where legislators wheel, deal, and threaten their way to an agreement that no one is happy with.

(At one point, in what was perhaps the most New York thing to ever happen, Strasburg explained what it was like working with Governor Cuomo. "I've worked for a Sicilian, and I know they're fine... until they get threatened," he told the court, to laughs.)

While Silver was barraged with charges related to his legal work, the (former) Senate Majority Leader is dealing with the fallout from his alleged nepotistic treatment of his son, Adam Skelos. The duo, who were both seated in between lawyers on Monday, had both been arrested on conspiracy, bribery, and extortion charges stemming from alleged deals made by Papa Skelos to get his son high-positioned jobs in firms that could benefit from some government intervention.

One of those jobs included a consulting position at an environmental company called AbTech Industries; on Monday, its CEO, Glenn Rink, took the stand. Rink's company is known for its Smart Sponge technology, which essentially absorbs oil out of water. This meant that of course Rink had to demonstrate the method with a sponge, a vial of motor oil, and some tap water.

Once the demonstration ended, Rink went on to explain how one of the top dogs at Glenwood Management (remember them?) contacted him about hiring someone they thought would be perfect for the consulting job: Adam Skelos. In an email to Rink, the developer bigwig literally wrote, "There is great potential for him to exploit his father's contacts statewide." In the hopes of securing a lucrative contract in Nassau County, where the Skelos family is from, Adam was hired soon after.

In between testimonies, the prosecution played cellphone audio of a call made between Skelos and one of his customers, a Greek guy named Dmitri. We're given little context, but it's safe to say the two had some history. Almost immediately, Skelos begins gloating about the "fucking reach and business opportunity" he has as the then-Senate Majority Leader's son. He continuously berates the guy for not seeming to care as much as he does. "Who gives a shit about this?" he asks himself, before ending the call.

In the press, Skelos the Younger is often characterized as the rich politician's son, a ne'er-do-well whose father gave him leg up after leg up. Evidence like that phone call does him no favors.

Being inside courtrooms of high-profile cases like these is strange. There's a sense that news happens inside these spaces, an almost ritualized unfolding of events and disclosing of information: arrest, indictment, press conference, trial, conviction (or not). Outside the court, the politicians return to being flesh-and-blood humans—Silver held the door for me as we left the court; later, I stood at the urinal with Skelos.

Eventually, this sense of unreality will collapse—the jury is deliberating Silver's fate now, and Skelos's trial should be over by Christmas. When everything settles, both those men's lives could be very different, and Bharara could wind up nailing a couple of prize political skins on his trophy wall. After that? As Bharara said, "Stay tuned."

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