On January 22, New York Assembly speaker Sheldon Silver was arrested for federal corruption charges. After years of rumors regarding injustices committed by Mr. Silver, the U.S. District Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara, filed a thirty-five page criminal complaint against Mr. Silver alleging five counts including honest services mail and wire fraud, conspiracy to commit honest services mail fraud, extortion “under the color of law”, and extortion conspiracy. Mr. Silver is a personal injury attorney and a Democratic politician from New York who held the position as Speaker of the New York Assembly for nearly twenty years. Eight days after his arrest on federal corruption charges, the democrat submitted his resignation with the New York State Assembly and his unpaid leave of absence from his position as counsel to Weitz & Luxenberg, P.C.
The allegations in the complaint center on Mr. Silver’s engagement in an asbestos claims scheme where he used his position as Speaker to clandestinely direct $500,000 in state funds to Dr. Robert Taub for his research center at Columbia University in exchange for the doctor steering mesothelioma (a cancer caused by asbestos exposure) patients to Mr. Silver. The complaint cites that Mr. Silver received more than $3 million in fees from the law firm he worked for, Weitz & Luxenberg, P.C., as a result of the “corrupt” referrals. He denies the charges against him.
While many were not surprised that Mr. Silver was accused of taking advantage of his political position, others were taken aback to see such a thorough investigation of a prominent politician, leading to a criminal complaint.
Recently there have been various efforts in the state of New York to reign in corruption. The Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption was created under Governor Andrew Cuomo’s direction; however, it was disbanded in March 2014. According to Mr. Bharara, the Moreland Commission revealed information that led to the criminal charges alleged against Sheldon Silver. Mr. Bharara also noted that a deal was cut that halted the commission’s work, providing temporary relief to Mr. Silver who fought its subpoenas and demanded it be shut down. Unsurprisingly, the relief for Mr. Silver did not last long.
Understanding White Collar Crime
White collar crime encompasses a broad range of illegal activity. Generally, it includes non-violent crimes committed in commercial situations for monetary gain. It can be quite challenging for prosecutors to prove these crimes because they are often concealed through complex transactions and typically lack some kind of ‘smoking gun’ evidence. Public corruption is a form of white-collar crime that occurs when “a government official, whether elected, appointed or hired, may violate federal law when he asks, demands, solicits, accepts, or agrees to receive anything of value in return for being influenced in the performance of their official duties”, according to Cornell University’s Legal Information Institute. A typical form of public corruption is the payment or receipt of bribes. The Federal Bureau of Investigation estimates that white-collar crime costs the United States between $300 and $660 billion annually.