On day three of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s corruption trial, the politician’s defense team looked to portray key witness Dr. Robert Taub as a man ratting out a friend in a bid to avoid jail time himself—while prosecutors tried to highlight the unique and unusual aspects of the funding Dr. Taub’s research facility at Columbia-Presbyterian hospital got from the Assembly while Dr. Taub referred patients to Mr. Silver’s law firm.
Recalling Dr. Taub’s testimony at yesterday’s proceedings, defense attorney Steven Melo noted that the mesothelioma specialist had committed a federal felony when he lied to investigators from U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara’s office that he had never referred patients to Weitz & Luxenburg, a law firm specializing in asbestos cases which formerly employed Mr. Silver. Mr. Silver’s counsel asked countless withering questions of Mr. Taub, accusing him of agreeing to testify against Mr. Silver in the interest of “saving your own skin” and preserving his “distinguished career” at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital.
“Does Columbia have a lot of convicted felons working there that you’re aware of?” was one of Mr. Melo’s many scathing inquiries that got slapped down with sustained objections from the prosecutors.
Dr. Taub, a small, bald octagenarian in a colorful bowtie, had his voice and memory appear to repeatedly fail him, as he was forced to rasp out “I don’t recall” in answer to numerous questions about his interactions with the ex-Assembly speaker and the feds. But he was able to clearly recall being “panicked” and “terrified” when the investigators first came calling at his Upper East Side apartment, but he insisted he later agreed to work with the Justice Department only in the hope of “correcting the record.”
“I knew it was an error and it had to be corrected,” he insisted, saying he did not even hope to dodge a prison sentence.
Ironically, Dr. Taub is currently suing Columbia University for trying to fire him “without cause.”
Another substantial piece of evidence Mr. Melo offered was the drafts of the cooperation agreement that passed between the physician’s attorney and the prosecution, in which Mr. Taub testified against Mr. Silver, but in which his lawyer struck out language stating that the doctor directed patients to Weitz & Luxenburg “in exchange for” funding and “at Silver’s request.” Like yesterday, Mr. Melo seemed to be arguing that the Justice Department was overreaching in its efforts to depict the arrangement between the doctor, the politician, the Assembly and the mesothelioma research center as a bribe and kickback scheme.
All along, Dr. Taub reiterated that he and Mr. Silver had become “friends” in the decade following their introduction in 2003, even as he confessed “the basis was I had referred patients to him over a period of time.”
The attorney for Mr. Silver got Dr. Taub to remember spending the Jewish holiday of Passover in the same hotel as the assemblyman, and receiving handmade matzah from him—while prosecutors wrung admissions from him that he had never set foot in Mr. Silver’s apartment on the Lower East Side or his house in the Catskills, that the hotel in question housed roughly 1,000 people, that he had never held a joint family event with the accused or even sat down and watched a game with him.
Prosecutors produced an email from 2010, well after the Columbia Mesothelioma Center ceased receiving state funds following the passage of new budget reform laws, in which Dr. Taub wrote to a friend in the field that he was continuing to refer some of his patients to Weitz & Luxenburg in order to maintain a relationship with the then-influential Mr. Silver.
“I may need him in the future. He is the most powerful man in New York State,” Dr. Taub read aloud from the document.
The defense noted that, after Dr. Taub received notification that he would be getting his first of two $250,000 state grants, he still had to submit reams of paperwork to the state Department of Health, as well as to the state attorney general and the state comptroller’s office. But the prosecution brought out that the cancer researcher never submitted any initial application before being told he had qualified for the funding, but had only sent letters to Mr. Silver—which Dr. Taub admitted was unlike any endowment he had gotten in the past.
“The process was usually the opposite, where first you filled out the application and then you got the grant,” he said.
Dr. Taub also repeated his testimony yesterday that Weitz & Luxenburg was the only law firm he ever referred a patient to that had not donated directly to his research center—an apparent quid quo pro he said he intimated to Mr. Silver on more than one occasion, though he said he did not directly ask the politician for money in person, only implied it in conversation.
The prosecution also brought out Assembly Deputy Budget Director Victor Franco, who testified that Mr. Silver long enjoyed unilateral control over the pot of funds used for medical facilities, prior to the passage of the budget reforms. There was no application process for the money, he said—either an Assembly member had to request it from the speaker, or an interested party had to approach Mr. Silver directly.
And Mr. Silver had always made the funding request for the Columbia Mesothelioma Center himself, even though it sat well outside of his lower Manhattan district.