The words of an 19th-century politician seemed to ring in the chilly air outside Manhattan federal court on Monday morning.
“I seen my opportunities and I took ’em!” George Washington Plunkitt once announced regarding tenure in the state Assembly and then the state Senate.
Plunkitt made this declaration from the now vanished shoeshine stand that once stood across the square from where the recently deposed speaker of the state Assembly and the even more recently deposed majority leader of the state Senate are on now trial in separate courtrooms for allegedly taking their own individual opportunities.
The charges against former speaker Sheldon Silver and those against former majority leader Dean Skelos are unrelated, but in both cases the defendant is alleged to have ventured beyond what Plunkitt described as “honest graft” into what he termed “dishonest graft.”
In his shoeshine stand discourses on politics in his native New York, Plunkitt described himself as a practitioner of “honest graft,” such as when he purchased a parcel of land after he happened to hear that the city intended to establish a park there. He said dishonest graft would have been to buy the land and then use his influence to have the city put a park there.
“There’s the biggest kind of a difference between political looters and politicians who make a fortune out of politics by keepin’ their eyes wide open,” Plunkitt opined. “The looter goes in for himself alone without considerin’ his organization or his city. The politician looks after his own interests, the organization’s interests, and the city’s interests all at the same time.”
By that standard, Plunkitt would have shaken his head at 71-year-old Silver, who has been on trial in the old Manhattan Federal Courthouse for the past three weeks. The summations were held Monday, and prosecutor Andrew Goldstein described Silver as a political looter for whom the status quo had turned to quid pro quo.
“Cheating, lying, and getting away with it,” the prosecutor intoned, going on to say, “This, ladies and gentlemen, is bribery. This was extortion. This was corruption, the real deal. Do not let it stand.”
The prosecutor outlined two schemes in which Silver allegedly pocketed nearly $4 million. In one, which the prosecutor called “The Asbestos Scheme,” Silver allegedly arranged for Dr. Robert Taub of Columbia University to receive state grants totaling $500,000 for his mesothelioma research in exchange for referring patients to a particular law firm. Silver has had a longtime affiliation with that firm and he received a “referral fee” for each case.
The first of the cases was a Taub patient named Katherine O’Leary. Silver received a check for $176,048.02. So many more cases followed that Silver had a stamp made and sent to the bank for its use in more quickly handing the checks to him.
“PAY TO THE ORDER OF HSBC BANK USA N.A. FOR DEPOSIT OF SHELDON SILVER COUNSELLOR AT LAW.”
The total surpassed $3 million. Taub not only got the grants, but Silver arranged employment for the doctor’s wife, son, and daughter.
“I greatly value your friendship,” Taub wrote in a letter to Silver.
The prosecutor also detailed what he called “The Real Estate Scheme,” in which Silver backed rent and tax abatement provisions desired by a big real estate firm, Glenwood Management. Silver also approved $1.09 billion in state financing for the firm’s projects.
“Sheldon Silver had control over an entire part of the government,” the prosecutor noted.
At Silver’s request, the real estate firm shifted a sizable portion of its considerable tax business from proven, long established firms to a new two-lawyer operation, Goldberg & Iryami. The fledgling firm apparently paid Silver 25 percent of what it received. The deal was memorialized in a letter that the prosecution was able to present to the jury.
“As agreed, a proportionate division of fees will be made between Jay Arthur Goldberg P.C. and Sheldon Silver, Esq.,” the letter read.
A second real estate firm shifted its tax business to Goldberg & Iryami, which managed to secure significant real estate tax reductions for its new client. Silver allegedly got 15 percent of the fees. His end of the two real estate arrangements was more than $700,000, prosecutors say.
“Why did he do it?” the prosecutor asked in summarizing the two schemes. “He did it for the money.”
And, the prosecutor said, Silver was able to rake in such remarkable sums because he had been one of the proverbial “three men in a room” who have long controlled New York state: the governor, the Assembly speaker, and the Senate majority leader.
“Sheldon Silver was one of the three men with all the power,” the prosecutor told the jury.
The governor had steered clear of trouble, but the man who had until recently been the third man in the room was also on trial on Monday morning, in the new Manhattan federal court building, just behind the old one.
Former Senate majority leader Skelos, age 67, and his son, Adam Skelos, age 33, are charged with joining in three schemes. The alleged means was the father’s political influence. The alleged result as detailed in the indictment was more than $300,000 in “bribes, gratuities and extortion payments.”
“The age-old tale of abuse of political power to satisfy personal greed,” prosecutor Tatiana Martins had said in her opening argument last week. “What the defendants did to line the pockets of the Skelos family wasn’t just wrong, and it wasn’t just politics as usual; it was corrupt and it was criminal.”
Even as the prosecutor in the Silver case was repeatedly mentioning Glenwood Management during his Monday morning summation, a witness in the Skelos case was testifying about an unrelated $20,000 payment the same real estate mega-firm secretly routed through a much smaller company to Adam Skelos.
During the afternoon session on Monday, the Skelos trial took an almost comical turn when the prosecution played a recording of a phone call in which Adam tried to play a tough guy. Adam could be heard seeking to wield daddy’s influence while simultaneously demonstrating why he was in such sorry need of it.
The party on the other end of the line was the leader of an association of Greek diners to whom Adam was angling to sell energy services.
The recording starts with Adam asking the diner owner if he just tried to call him. The diner owner says he did not. Adam insists he has been getting missed calls from that number.
“Every time you call me, you see my father’s name in the paper, right?” Adam asks.
“No,” the diner owner says.
Adam then scolds the diner owner for not calling him.
“If you want, you want to start doing some work together, you’re going to have to call me a little more frequently,” Adam says. “Otherwise, don’t call me at all. OK? What I wanted to set up with you was something that would have helped you more than me. Do you understand that?”
“I’m trying to,” the diner owner says.
“A lot of people don’t have my cellphone number, OK?” Adam says. “I don’t give my cellphone number out to everybody… It’s a privilege to have that number.”
The conversation takes several more bizarre turns, with Adam at one point saying, “You had an opportunity to work with someone who could get a lot of things done for you.”
“Like what?” the diner owner asks.
“I’m not going to say this on the phone,” Adam says. “You could have heard those opportunities in person, but you wanted not to do that. For some reason, you thought you were more important and more powerful because you have a few members that, that have diners. OK. Who gives a shit about diners?”
Following the playing of that recording, the case moved on to Glenn Rink, founder and CEO of an Arizona-based company that Adam is said to have sought to take over after arriving on the scene with the promise of his father’s contacts.
The company, AbTech, produces something called Smart Sponge, a polymer that absorbs impurities from water. The prosecutor now asked Rink the present price of the company’s stock.
“I’m not sure what it is today, but last time I looked it was about 3 cents,” he replied.
Even so, the product looked promising enough after Judge Kimba Wood allowed Rink to demonstrate it to the jury.
“You’ll see it does a pretty amazing job very quickly,” Rink said.
He mixed some motor oil and diesel fuel into some New York City tap water.
“I’m going to take this and I’m just going to contaminate it,” Rink explained.
He then poured the polluted stuff through a piece of Smart Sponge. The prosecutor reported the result.
“Let the record reflect the water was clear,” she said.
Back at the Silver trial, defense attorney Steven Molo was giving his summation, insisting that the former speaker had acted out of friendship and “good will.”
“Sheldon Silver did not sell his office,” Molo said. “There was no quid pro quo. He is not guilty.”
Molo noted that Silver’s Assembly district includes Ground Zero and suggested his client became involved with Dr. Taub out of concern for those who may have been exposed to toxins as a result of the 9/11 attacks. Molo kept the straightest of faces as he suggested another way Taub’s patients may have ended up contacting the law firm favored by Silver, Weitz & Luxenberg.
“They may have seen a Weitz & Luxenberg ad on television,” he said.
In sum, Molo was arguing that Silver was simply practicing politics as usual. But likely even Plunkitt would not have agreed.
At the back of the courtroom sat U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who made the cases against Silver and against the Skelos father and son. He has pledged that his work against public corruption is not done, and you could almost think of him as a human Smart Sponge.
How remarkable it would be if he were able to remove all the corruption and leave New York politics as clean as its water.
The jury in the Silver trial is expected to get the case on Tuesday.
Correction, 11/24/15: A previous version of this article said Tammany was in the 18th century.