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Silver Ruling Could Eventually Put Taxpayers on Hook for Defense Costs

Rules Allow Reimbursement When Public Officials Aren't Found Guilty

Dave Debo
July 14, 2017 - 8:30 am
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(WBEN) The court ruling that vacates former State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver's conviction, if upheld,  could mean taxpayers will pay  likely millions of dollars for his defense in a series of trials.

Silver’s conviction in a $5 million corruption case has been overturned by the US Court of Appeals Second Circuit  in a ruling that says the judge's instructions to the jury were not consistent with a recent Supreme Court ruling.  In June 2016, the US Supreme Court reversed the conviction of Virginia Republican ex-Gov. Robert McDonnell. It raised the standards prosecutors must use when they accuse public officials of wrongdoing.

In 2015, Silver – once one of the most powerful people in New York state politics – was convicted of fraud, extortion and money laundering – accepting bribes and kickbacks of nearly $5 million

Not only is the reversal creating outrage among government reform groups and a range of partisans on social media, but it also stands to ignite further controversy if Silver bills the state for his legal defense-- something he is allowed to do.

"When the state accuses you of doing something wrong, related to your official duties , and you are convicted and then exonerated, the state pays for it," says SUNY Albany Professor Alan Chartock, a longtime political commentator. " So again and again and again, we're talking abut millions of dollars the state has to pay to these guys, for their lawyers."

(Chartock, in a WAMC Albany Photo)

In 2014, former state senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno was convicted on f two counts of "honest services fraud" and acquitted on five other counts. An eighth charge resulted in a mistrial. Based on the acquittals, he submitted --and was approved for --a reimbursement request for $2.4 million in defense fees.  State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman later disallowed approx. $500,000  of that not directly related to his  defense. 

None of this will come to pass if Silver's conviction is eventually restored in another trial, and acting U.S. attorney Joon Kim says Silver will be tried again. 

“While we are disappointed by the Second Circuit’s decision, we respect it, and look forward to retrying the case," Kim said in a prepared statement.

"Although finding that the Supreme Court’s McDonnell decision issued after Silver’s conviction required a different legal instruction to the jury, the Second Circuit also held that the evidence presented at the trial was sufficient to prove all the crimes charged against Silver, even under the new legal standard," the statement said.  "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. Although it will be delayed, we do not expect justice to be denied."
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The string of convictions that include Silver have prompted a push to have public officials forfeit their pensions upon convictions. Currently not allowed by the state constitution, it has been approved by the legislature twice and goes before voters in a referendum in November.   Even if approved there, Silver's pension -- after 38 ears in the State Assembly  - could be collected along with the defense fees. . 

WBEN Photo/Mike Baggerman
Yesterday, in Buffalo, Governor Andrew Cuomo commented on the new developments, saying it is time for patience

"I understand the prosecutors are going to appeal that decision. So let's wait until ..we see where we wind up," Cuomo said 

RELATED AUDIO: Hear Politico.com's Albany Bureau Chief Jimmy Vielkind on The WBEN Liveline

Buffalo Billion Trial/Sheldon Silver Chat - POLITICO's Jimmy Vielkind

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