Former New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s quest to avoid prison got a boost when a panel of appeals judges heard his appeal Wednesday, questioning whether his actions were crimes or politics as usual.
The Democrat wasn’t at oral arguments before the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan, but he likely heard a positive report from his lawyers.
Two of the panel’s three judges questioned whether Silver’s actions fit the definition of a public corruption crime after a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling narrowed the requirements of the law.
Silver, 75, is appealing his conviction and seven-year prison sentence. Prosecutors said he collected nearly $4 million in fees to help a cancer researcher and real estate developers. An earlier conviction was overturned on appeal after the high court redefined the law.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Daniel insisted there was enough evidence to convict Silver and that the trial judge properly instructed jurors about the law.
Circuit Judge Richard J. Sullivan said a description by prosecutors of what Silver promised to do in return for business steered to a law firm was “pretty squishy.”
And he seemed critical of the prosecution’s efforts to claim proof of Silver’s crimes included his advice on how to get a charity race permit that he provided to a doctor who referred law clients to him.
“If somebody wants to pay money for that, it’s not good, but it’s not a crime, right?” Sullivan asked.
Circuit Judge Richard C. Wesley, who served in the New York Assembly from 1982 to 1986, spoke of the need to separate what is crime from what is the norm in politics.
As an example, he said anyone who accepts money from the National Rifle Association probably knows that a vote on legislation against the NRA’s wishes will prompt disappointment by the group and possibly the end to contributions.
“That’s the nature of politics, sir,” he told Richenthal, the prosecutor. “People just don’t give you money to be your friends. Believe me, I can tell you that from four years in the Legislature.”
At another point, Wesley said some of the crimes described in the case seemed so vague that the allegations “get very close to the line of the danger of just currying favor.”
Silver remains free on bail.