By ULRIK NARCISSE
Former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s influences were deep — and so was his control over grant money sequestered in the state budget, according to a state official reluctantly testifying in Manhattan Federal Court on Thursday.
Subpoenaed witness New York State Assembly Deputy Budget Director Victor Franco said that Silver held total control over Health Care Reform Act grant money allocation and capital funds, channeling grant funds to organizations often chosen unilaterally, serving both as sponsor and as sign-off individual, often with little to no oversight or peer-review of recipient organizations.
“The speaker was the ultimate decision maker,” testified Franco, repeating the statement on several occasions during prosecution questioning. Franco also repeated that he wasn’t aware of any formal system regarding grant application, and that public knowledge on grant availability wasn’t formally provided. Additionally, Franco said that grantees were rarely checked up on, unless the recipient themselves raised the issue.
Franco added that he had little knowledge of any existing competitive process to attain grant money or requisite checks other than the basic standards required by any institution. According to testimony, through Empire State Development Corporation, Silver helped secure $2 million for OHEL Children’s Home and Family Services, a non-profit where Taub’s son was hired. Franco said the funds were granted to provide the organization funds to build a disabled children’s summer camp.
This testimony appeared to reinforce the prosecution’s portrayal of Silver as a wheeler-dealer political boss holding the purse strings of state funds, unencumbered by oversight.
Earlier in the day, Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew Goldstein presented emails by government witness Dr. Robert Taub saying that he considered Silver to be the “most powerful man in New York State,” and that in spite of losing grant funding for medical research from Silver, that he would continue to refer cases to the former assembly speaker, in case he needed him in the future.
However, during defense cross examination, Taub referred to his relationship with Silver as one of friendship, one that had increrased as time went on, in an attempt to counter the impression left by the prosecution that their relationship was mostly transactional. Taub has been implicated in Silver’s alleged bribery charges by referring patients to the law firm Silver worked at, Weitz and Luxenberg, after receiving $500,000 in grant money over the span of two years to fund mesothelioma research at his hospital.
Defense attorneys attempted to frame Taub’s alleged friendship with Silver going south after Taub committed a felony by lying to federal investigators investigating Silver. On August 8, 2014, Taub intentionally misled investigators by denying that he had, in fact, referred patients to Silver’s law firm, Weitz and Luxenberg.
“I was terrified,” said Taub, in addition to saying that he had been confused and panicked, even losing sleep after the visit.
After consulting with his daughter, who works as an attorney, Taub testified that he attempted to renege on his previous statements to investigators, realizing that he had in fact committed a felony.
“I didn’t realize it at the time,” said Taub.
An early draft of an immunity deal proposed between prosecutors and Taub’s lawyer was revised later to remove the words “in exchange for” in regards to Taub and Silver’s assistance to one another, where Silver provided research funds to Taub, while Taub referred mesothelioma patients to Silver.
After the defense’s cross examination, prosecutors later attempted to scrutinize the depth of Taub and Silver’s relationship, volleying questions related to the intimacy of Taub and Silver’s friendship. Prosecutors pressed Taub in asking whether or not he had in fact ever visited Silver’s Manhattan apartment, been invited to any of Silver’s family events, or been to Silver’s home in the Catskills, leading to Taub’s admission that he had never set foot in either location or been invited to family functions.
Taub was later pressed to clarify his testimony that he stayed at the same hotel as Silver on several occasions, confirming that while he did often stay at the same hotel, over a thousand other people would reside at the same hotel during Passover.
When asked whether his friendship began before or after referring patients to Silver, Taub said that his friendship had grown bilaterally over the course of referring patients to Silver.
“A friend in business, and over time, it acquired additional dimensions, yes,” said Taub.