Allegedly Used Official Position to Obtain $4 Million in Bribes and Kickbacks Concealed as Income From Outside Law Practice
Preet Bharara, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, and Richard Frankel, Special Agent-in-Charge of the Criminal Division of the New York Field Office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”), announced today that New York State Assembly Speaker SHELDON SILVER was arrested this morning on charges that he used his official position to receive nearly $4 million in bribes and kickbacks from people and businesses in exchange for his official acts, and that SILVER 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. SILVER was placed under arrest at the FBI in lower Manhattan, this morning, and is scheduled to appear before U.S. Magistrate Judge Frank Maas in Manhattan federal court later today. Judge Maas also issued seizure warrants to prevent SILVER from accessing approximately $3.8 million in proceeds alleged to be traceable to the charged corruption offenses until the case is resolved.
U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said: “Over his decades in office, Speaker Silver has amassed titanic political power. But, as alleged, during that same time, Silver also amassed a tremendous personal fortune – through the abuse of that political power. All told, we allege that Silver corruptly collected some $4 million in bribes and kickbacks disguised as ‘referral fees.’ Those disguised bribes and kickbacks account for approximately two-thirds of all of Silver’s outside income since 2002.
“As today’s charges make clear, the show-me-the-money culture of Albany has been perpetuated and promoted at the very top of the political food chain. And as the charges also show, the greedy art of secret self-reward was practiced with particular cleverness and cynicism by the Speaker himself. Among other things, we allege that Sheldon Silver, Speaker of the New York State Assembly, was on retainer to a mammoth real estate developer at the very same time that the chamber he dominates was considering and passing legislation vitally affecting the bottom line of that developer; at the very same time that he was hearing out lobbyists paid by that developer and at the very same time that he was deliberately keeping secret from the public any information about this lucrative side-deal, in violation of the law.
“Politicians are supposed to be on the people’s payroll, not on secret retainer to wealthy special interests they do favors for. These charges go to the very core of what ails Albany – a lack of transparency, lack of accountability, and lack of principle joined with an overabundance of greed, cronyism, and self-dealing.”
FBI Special Agent-in-Charge Richard Frankel said: “As alleged, Silver took advantage of the political pulpit to benefit from unlawful profits. When all was said and done, he amassed nearly $4 million in illegitimate proceeds and arranged for approximately $500,000 in state funds to be used for projects that benefited his personal plans. We hold our elected representatives to the highest standards and expect them to act in the best interest of their constituents. In good faith, we trust they will do so while defending the fundamental tenets of the legal system. But as we are reminded today, those who make the laws don’t have the right to break the laws.”
According to the allegations contained in the Complaint unsealed today in Manhattan federal court:
For more than two decades, SHELDON SILVER has served as Speaker of the Assembly, a position that gives him significant power over the operation of New York State government. SILVER used this substantial power – including, in particular, his power over the real estate industry and his control over certain health care funding – to unlawfully enrich himself by soliciting and obtaining client referrals worth millions of dollars from people and entities in exchange for SILVER’s official acts, and attempting to disguise this money as legitimate outside income earned from his work as a private lawyer. In particular, SILVER claimed on financial disclosure forms required to be filed with New York State and in public statements that the millions of dollars he received in outside income while also serving as Speaker of the Assembly came from a Manhattan-based law firm, Weitz & Luxenberg P.C., where SILVER claimed to work “representing individual clients” in “personal injury actions.” These claims were materially false and misleading – and made to cover up unlawful payments SILVER received solely due to his power and influence as an elected legislator and the Speaker of the Assembly.
The scheme provided SILVER with two different streams of unlawful income: (i) approximately $700,000 in kickbacks SILVER received by steering two real estate developers with business before the state legislature to a law firm run by a co-conspirator, and (ii) more than $3 million in asbestos client referral fees SILVER received by, among other official acts, awarding $500,000 in state grants to a universityresearch center ofa physician who referred patients made ill by asbestos to SILVER at Weitz & Luxenberg.
Unlawful Income From the Real Estate Law Firm
SILVER entered into a corrupt relationship with a co-conspirator (“CC-1”) who had been SILVER’s counsel in the Assembly and operated a real estate law firm (the “Real Estate Law Firm”) that specialized in making applications to the City of New York to reduce taxes assessed on properties.
Beginning in at least 2000, SILVER approached two prominent developers of properties in Manhattan, one personally and one in part through a lobbyist, and asked the developers to hire the Real Estate Law Firm. The developers – both of whom lobbied SILVER on real estate issues because their profits depended significantly on state legislation favorable to their business– agreed to use the Real Estate Law Firm as SILVER had requested. Over the years, these developers paid millions of dollars in legal fees to the Real Estate Law Firm. SILVER received a cut from the legal fees amounting to nearly $700,000. SILVER had no public affiliation with the Real Estate Law Firm and performed no legal work at all to earn those fees, which were simply payments for SILVER having arranged the business through his official power and influence.
While continuing to receive the fees and in furtherance of the scheme, SILVER took official action beneficial to the developers. For example, while SILVER was publicly associated with advocating for tenants, a proposal made by the one of the developers who sent work to the Real Estate Law Firm was in substantial part enacted in real estate legislation in 2011 with SILVER’s support.
Unlawful Income From Asbestos Client Referrals
SILVER also entered into a corrupt arrangement with a leading physician who specialized in the treatment of asbestos-related diseases (“Doctor-1”) through which SILVER issued state grants and otherwise used his official position to provide favors to Doctor-1 so that Doctor-1 would refer and continue to refer his patients to SILVER at Weitz & Luxenberg, a firm with which SILVER was affiliated as counsel. Specifically, SILVER arranged for the State of New York to fund two state grants – each for $250,000, and paid out of a secret and unitemized pool of funds controlled entirely by SILVER – for a research center Doctor-1 had established. SILVER used his official position to provide Doctor-1 with other benefits as well, including helping to direct $25,000 in state funds to a not-for-profit organization for which one of Doctor-1’s family members served on the board, and asking the CEO of a second not-for-profit to hire a second family member of Doctor-1.
From 2002 to the present, SILVER received more than $3 million from legal fees Weitz & Luxenberg received from patients Doctor-1 had referred to SILVER at the firm while SILVER was taking official actions to benefit Doctor-1. SILVER did no legal work whatsoever on these asbestos cases, his sole role having been to use his official position and access to state funds to induce Doctor-1 to provide him with these lucrative referrals.
Silver’s Efforts to Cover Up the Scheme
SILVER took various efforts to disguise his unlawful outside income and prevent the detection of the scheme. SILVER listed on his official public disclosure forms that his outside income consisted of “limited practice of law in the principal subject area of personal injury claims on behalf of individual clients,” which was false and misleading. Beginning in 2010, SILVER’s disclosures changed to state that the source of his legal income was a “Law Practice” that “includ[ed]” being of counsel to Weitz & Luxenberg. SILVER never disclosed his relationship with the Real Estate Law Firm or any work beyond what he claimed was a “personal injury” practice.
SILVER also repeatedly made false statements about his outside income in his public statements, including the following:
- SILVER claimed he performed legal work consisting of spending several hours each week evaluating legal matters brought to him by potential clients and then referring cases that appeared to have merit to lawyers at Weitz & Luxenberg. In fact, SILVER did no such work on the asbestos cases and obtained those referrals to Weitz & Luxenberg based on his corrupt arrangement with Doctor-1.
- SILVER claimed his law practice involved the representation of “plain, ordinary simple people.” In fact, SILVER represented some of the largest real estate developers in the State of New York, whose interests are in many ways dependent on state legislation.
- SILVER claimed through his spokesperson that SILVER found clients by virtue of his having been a “lawyer for more than 40 years,” in a manner that was “not unlike any other attorney in this state, anywhere.” In fact, SILVER found his lucrative asbestos and real estate developer clients solely by virtue of his official position.
- SILVER recently stated through his spokesperson that “[n]one of his clients have any business before the state.” In fact, SILVER’s outside income included millions of dollars of fees obtained through real estate developers with significant business before the state and a prominent physician to whose benefit SILVER provided state funding and other benefits related to SILVER’s official position.
Finally, SILVER thwarted the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption so that it would not learn of his illegal outside income, first by filing legal motions on behalf of the Assembly and taking other action to block the Moreland Commission’s investigation into legislative outside income and then by negotiating with the Governor of New York to prematurely terminate the Moreland Commission.
* * *
SILVER, 70, of New York, New York, is charged with two counts of honest services fraud, one count of conspiracy to commit honest services fraud, one count of extortion under color of official right, and one count of conspiracy to commit extortion under color of official right. Each of these five counts carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison. The maximum potential sentences in this case are prescribed by Congress and are provided here for informational purposes only, as any sentencing of the defendant will be determined by a judge.
U.S. Attorney Bharara praised the work of the Criminal Investigators of the United States Attorney’s Office and the FBI, who jointly conducted this investigation. Mr. Bharara also noted that the investigation is continuing.
This case is being prosecuted by the Office’s Public Corruption Unit. Assistant U.S. Attorneys Howard S. Master, Carrie H. Cohen, Andrew D. Goldstein, and James McDonald are in charge of the prosecution.
The charges contained in the Complaint are merely accusations, and the defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.