A federal appeals court overturned the 2015 corruption conviction of former New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver on Thursday. Citing a Supreme Court ruling from last year that vacated former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell’s corruption conviction, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals further blurred the fading lines between political contributions and bribery.
On November 30, 2015, Silver was found guilty of seven charges, including two counts of honest services wire fraud, two counts of honest services mail fraud, two counts of extortion under color of official right, and one count of engaging in illegal monetary transactions. According to his conviction, Silver abused his office to obtain nearly $4 million in bribes and kickbacks in exchange for his official acts while acquiring another $1 million through laundering the proceeds of his crimes.
For steering real estate developers with business before the state legislature to a law firm run by a co-conspirator, Silver received approximately $700,000 in kickbacks. Goldberg & Iryami reportedly paid Silver to use his official power and influence to refer potential clients to their firm.
In a separate scheme, Silver awarded $500,000 in state grants to the university research center of a physician who referred asbestos patients to the personal injury law firm where Silver has worked for over a decade. After receiving $500,000 in state grants, the Director of Columbia University’s Mesothelioma Center, Dr. Richard Taub, referred possible asbestos victims to Silver’s other law firm, Weitz & Luxenberg. Acquiring the majority of its revenue from asbestos litigation, Weitz & Luxenberg ended up paying Silver $3.9 million for the referrals and $1.4 million in salary even though he did not perform legal work for the law firm.
In May 2016, Silver was sentenced to 12 years in federal prison. But on Thursday, the Second Circuit cited McDonnell’s case and the definition of “official action” in both corruption cases to vacate Silver’s conviction.
On June 27, 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously vacated McDonnell’s corruption conviction after the former governor was sentenced to two years in prison for soliciting and obtaining payments, loans, gifts, and other items from Star Scientific, a Virginia-based corporation, and Jonnie Williams Sr., Star Scientific’s then-chief executive officer, in violation of federal public corruption laws.
Convicted of one count of conspiracy to commit honest-services wire fraud, one count of conspiracy to obtain property under color of official right, three counts of honest-services wire fraud, and six counts of obtaining property under color of official right, McDonnell avoided serving his prison sentence when the Supreme Court weakened the definition of “official act” to legally justify bribery in the name of political donations. On Thursday, the Second Circuit determined that jurors may not have been properly instructed on the new legal definition of “official act.”
“Like the improper instruction in McDonnell, the plain language of the instruction at Silver’s trial captured lawful conduct, such as arranging meetings or hosting events with constituents,” Circuit Judge Jose Cabranes wrote in the decision. “We cannot conclude, beyond a reasonable doubt, that a rational jury would have found Silver guilty if it had been properly instructed on the definition of an official act.”
Responsible for leading the federal prosecution against Silver, fired U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara took to Twitter on Thursday and wrote, “The evidence was strong. The Supreme Court changed the law. I expect Sheldon Silver to be re-tried and reconvicted.”
Due to the overturned corruption convictions of McDonnell and Silver, attorneys representing former New York State Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and his son are expected to use the precedent in their appeals. Skelos was sentenced to five years in federal prison for abusing his official position to obtain hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes.
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