Ex-New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s Corruption Conviction Overturned

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — Former New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver was shamed, convicted, and sentenced to prison.

But on Thursday, a federal appeals court overturned Silver’s conviction in a multi-million dollar corruption case

As CBS2’s Tony Aiello reported, prosecutors said they are ready to “try again” after the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in Manhattan vacated Silver’s conviction.

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In 2015, Silver – once one of the most powerful people in New York state politics – was knocked off his longtime perch when he was convicted of fraud, extortion and money laundering in two quid pro quo schemes.

Silver was prosecuted by former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara and his team in late 2015. 

Prosecutors said he collected nearly $5 million in bribes and kickbacks from a cancer researcher and real estate developers in return for using his powerful post to help them, and then laundered the money in private investment vehicles.

Prosecutors said he amassed more than $2 million in assets and arranged to receive a $70,000 annual pension from the state.

A few months later, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling changed the landscape for public corruption prosecutions, CBS2’s Aiello reported. 

The appeals court said the judge’s instructions on the law were not consistent with a recent Supreme Court ruling that reversed the conviction of Virginia Republican ex-Gov. Robert McDonnell. It raised the standards prosecutors must use when they accuse public officials of wrongdoing.

“To government officials, it felt like there were no rules, that prosecutors could just decide we want to prosecute this, but not that,” said Randy Singer, who was part of the legal team that defended McDonnell and his wife.

The Supreme Court unanimously threw out their convictions, saying merely setting up meetings or taking phone calls was insufficient to convict officials for corruption.

In the Silver case, there was evidence he took many steps to help people who paid him kickbacks, but the appeals court threw out Silver’s conviction because the McDonnell case changes the way judges must explain the law to juries.

“So the jury instructions that the district court gave to the jury in the Silver case basically said that an official act is any action taken under color of state authority. And what the Second Circuit said is that is just too broad,” Singer said.

Silver was sentenced last year to 12 years in prison, but was allowed to remain free pending his appeal.

The ruling does not mean Silver has been cleared.

“They didn’t exonerate Shelly Silver. They didn’t rule for Shelly Silver saying there was insufficient evidence for his conviction,” said James Copland of the Manhattan Institute. “What they said was that the jury instructions were improper.”

Indeed, prosecutors said they will retry Silver.

“While we are disappointed by the Second Circuit’s decision, we respect it, and look forward to retrying the case,” Acting U.S. Attorney Joon Kim said in a statement.

Kim said the 2nd Circuit found that the evidence at trial was sufficient to prove crimes charged against the 73-year-old Democrat, even under the new legal standard .

“Although this decision puts on hold the justice that New Yorkers got upon Silver’s conviction, we look forward to presenting to another jury the evidence of decades-long corruption by one of the most powerful politicians in New York State history,” Kim said. “Although it will be delayed, we do not expect justice to be denied.”

Bharara is no longer U.S. Attorney, but he reacted on Twitter: “The evidence was strong. The Supreme Court changed the law. I expect Sheldon Silver to be retried and re-convicted.”

As CBS2’s Political Reporter Marcia Kramer reported, the federal goverment says it will retry Silver, but the question is: Who will do it?

Bharara was fired and the team that prosecuted Silver has left the U.S. attorney’s office for other jobs.

“If they have the same ball club on the field and they’ve already won the first end of the double header, that would be good for their case. But now it’s a new team,” said Lee Miringoff, of Marist College. “They’re going to have to get up to speed. It could be problematic.”

The new trial team will have to become almost instant-experts on Silver, Kramer reported. But New York state Sen. Todd Kaminsky, the former federal prosecutor who convicted Sen. Pedro Espada of corruption, said he doesn’t think it will be that much of a problem.

“The prosecutors who are there have a blueprint, they have an entire report, the entire written record of the case, and that will certainly help them,” he said.

“I don’t think they’re waking up today and saying, ‘oh my gosh, our big trial is in jeopardy.’ I think  they’re waking up saying, ‘this is an unfortunate setback,'” Kaminsky added.

It’s unclear whether the feds will offer Silver a plea deal, rather than re-try the case, Kramer reported. A spokesperson for the U.S. attorney’s office declined to comment.

The court’s decision could put more pressure on Albany to pass ethics reform this year.

Silver’s lawyers say he is delighted that his conviction was overturned and they look forward to vindication at retrial.

“We are grateful the courts saw it our way and reversed the conviction on all counts,” lawyers Joel Cohen and Steven Molo said in a statement Thursday.

Silver was once one of of the most powerful people in New York state politics – along with Gov. Andrew Cuomo and former Senate leader Dean Skelos. The trio was sometimes called the “three men in a room.”

He served as leader of the state Assembly from 1994 through early 2015.

(© Copyright 2017 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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