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November: Sweeps Month For Top Lawmakers In Court

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Silver Trial Continues

The fate of former Assembly speaker Sheldon Silver hangs in the balance as a federal jury sits through several weeks of testimony. Silver, 71, is charged by federal authorities “with using his official position to receive nearly $4 million in bribes and kickbacks from people and businesses in exchange for his official acts, and masked these payments from public view by disguising the payments as income from what he claimed was a law practice primarily focused on personal injury matters,” according to the indictment.

The jury trial is expected to be decided next month in a federal courthouse in Silver’s Manhattan legislative district, just a few miles from his Grand Street residence on the Lower East Side.

The verdict will be decided by a jury made up of three men and nine women who are mostly black and Hispanic. The jury pool consisted of residents from Manhattan, Westchester and Putnam counties, and the Bronx.

As I sat through jury selection, known as voir dire, it was clear that many potential jurors had an idea that corruption among state lawmakers exists but had no specific knowledge. They knew the name of the former Assembly speaker, although one potential juror misidentified the defendant as Sheldon Silverman.

At one point, Judge Valerie Caproni asked a potential juror from Westchester County if she knew Assemblywoman Amy Pawling. The last name is actually Paulin. When the defense attorney mentioned the word “lulu,” the judge interrupted and asked: What did you say? Lulu as in L-U-L-U? What’s that? The answer: It’s a stipend given state lawmakers for chairing a particular committee or holding a leadership role in the Assembly.

It was clear this jury pool faced a steep learning curve. The civics lesson began when the first witness was called. It was none other than the aforementioned Ms. Paulin (D-Scarsdale). After projecting a picture of the Assembly chamber on a large screen, prosecutors asked Paulin to point with a laser to where she sits. She testified that her seating assignment was approved by Silver. Her committee assignment as chairman of the energy committee, from which she receives a lulu, was selected by Silver, as was her office space. In actuality, the speaker’s staff selects these, though the ultimate responsibility rests with the speaker.

On cross examination the defense pointed out, and got Paulin to acknowledge, that she may have some innocent conflicts of interest in her position. Paulin admitted she chaired an energy committee hearing at which the head of Con Edison testified –this while her husband held as much as $250,000 in Con Edison stock. She said she did not know about the stock, though it was listed on her financial disclosure form, which she signed.

The defense noted Paulin’s dogged pursuit of legislation mandating that students receive the HPV (Human PapillomaVirus) vaccine in an attempt to prevent certain cancers. Paulin admitted her husband owns hundreds of thousands of dollars of stock in Merck, which would administer the vaccine. The information about the Merck stock was also listed on Paulin’s financial disclosure form. Paulin said she did not pay attention to stocks in which her husband invests, and hadn’t told the speaker about the potential conflicts. She conceded that the defense had made its point and that she “is going to be much more careful in the future.”

Perry Weitz, founder of the Weitz and Luxemburg law firm, testified that the firm paid Silver $120,000 a year from 2002 through 2014 to have his prestigious name on the firm’s letterhead in order to help attract additional clients to the firm. Silver was not expected to do any legal work for the money, Weitz testified. When the firm expanded its personal injury practice to include mesothelioma cases Silver decided to give that effort a little boost. Unbeknownst to Weitz, Silver connected with Dr. Robert Taub, a prosecution witness who, when questioned by Silver’s attorney, testified he did not have “an explicit agreement to exchange patients for grants.”

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Marc Gronich is news director of Statewide News Service. He also operates the website JBizTechValley.com. He has been covering government and politics since 1981. His Albany Beat column appears monthly in The Jewish Press.