Politics

Sheldon Silver’s New York Courts Under Federal Investigation

Kerry Picket Political Reporter

Former New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who was ousted from his leadership position on Monday afternoon, is not the only powerful public servant being scrutinized by the feds. According to The New York Post, the New York State Supreme Court’s civil division, located in Silver’s Lower East Manhattan, is under federal investigation.

New York’s U.S. Attorney’s office says that the case against Silver focuses on so-called legal work Silver claimed to be performing at the asbestos litigation firm Weitz and Luxenberg, but never actually did.

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara charges that Silver was collecting millions of dollars in bribes and kickbacks from real estate and asbestos claims. With the help of Dr. Robert Taub, Silver and his law firm received asbestos patient referrals to take to allegedly friendly courts.

The New York Times notes the economic consulting firm Bates White says Weitz and Luxenberg dealt with 53 percent of the city’s mesothelioma filings. Additionally, the court admitted that Weitz & Luxenberg cases took priority over others and won the most money.

The New York Daily News reports the judge hearing the cases was Jim Yates, who now serves as Silver’s chief counsel. Yates served as chief counsel to the last Assembly Speaker the feds slapped with charges.

According to the Daily News, the attorneys pleaded guilty before Judge Yates of filing false statements that failed to mention the pay outs to a “runner” with the Office of Court Administration (OCA). The OCA was a state agency run by Jonathan Lippman, a childhood friend of Silver’s who would later go on to become chief of New York’s highest court without ever previously serving as one of the court’s members — a feat never accomplished since 1898.

Charles Compton, former president of the Supreme Court Officers Association, told the New York Post, “The appointment of Sheldon Silver’s childhood friend, Jonathan Lippman, as the state’s chief judge based on his administrative experience made about as much sense as the Yankees making their accountant the manager of the team.” He added the appointment was to “protect and promote Silver’s interests.”

As long as Silver was speaker of the Assembly, he could ensure that tort reform would never make it to the floor of the chamber especially legislation that would put a cap on pain and suffering awards in medical malpractice cases, the New York Times points out.

Silver has long been known for his lucrative relationship with asbestos lawyers and protecting the medical malpractice industry in Albany. When called out on it, he would become irritated and play the victim.

When asked by a New York Post reporter in 2003 about the obvious conflict of interest relating to his dealings at the firm and legislation at the capitol, Silver angrily responded, “I think you being here is a conflict,” adding that the reporter was only asking him about the issue because the Post is a conservative paper owned by publisher Rupert Murdoch.

Murdoch responded to Silver’s troubles by recently tweeting, “NY surprise!  Finally prosecutor catches up with state’s second most powerful – Sheldon Silver.  If guilty, opportunity for all things good.”

As speaker, Silver took his cozy relationship with Weitz and Luxenberg one step further. He appointed firm founder Arthur Luxenberg to a state judicial selection committee that screens judicial candidates to appointed posts.

The Wall Street Journal reports State Judge Sherry Klein Heitler moved up on Silver’s watch and became chief judge of New York City Asbestos Litigation (NYCAL).

According to the Journal, “The American Tort Reform Association’s most recent report on ‘judicial hellholes’ notes that this windfall was aided by Judge Heitler’s ruling last year, made at the request of Weitz & Luxenberg, to reverse a 20-year policy deferring punitive damages in asbestos cases.”

Heitler’s decision was a payday for plaintiff firms like Weitz and Luxenberg. She went on to say has said that only the legislature could “deny plaintiffs the opportunity to seek punitive damages.”

Elections for the next New York Assembly Speaker are set for early this week. Bronx Assemblyman Carl Heastie is currently the front-runner and has most of the support of his Democratic colleagues.