WASHINGTON HEIGHTS — It was a prescription for corruption.
A renowned Columbia University Medical Center oncologist who has been lauded for a career spanning nearly a half-century is the key witness in the multimillion-dollar bribery and kickback case against state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, sources said Thursday.
Dr. Robert Taub, the director of Columbia's Mesothelioma Center, which handles asbestos-related cancer, referred his patients to Silver's law firm in exchange for the speaker steering $500,000 in state money to his research and providing favors to his family, according to a criminal complaint and sources.
Federal prosecutors said in the complaint that Taub and Silver met through a mutual friend in the early 2000s. At the time, Taub, who graduated from Yale University's School of Medicine and has been a doctor for nearly 50 years, had just launched his center at Columbia and was looking for law firms to fund his research, the complaint said.
Money for asbestos-related research is hard to come by, court documents noted, because the disease is rare and survival rates are low. Therefore, law firms that litigate the cases provide cash in some cases.
Through a friend, Taub, who also holds a PhD from London University, met Silver, who demanded the doctor refer his patients to the law firm Weitz & Luxenberg, which specialized in tort cases involving asbestos-related diseases, according to prosecutors.
Silver, who was hired by the firm in 2002, benefited from the referrals, the complaint said. Aside from Weitz & Luxenberg paying him a salary of $120,000 a year, Silver received a third of the firm's cut from whatever it recovered from settlements or judgments on behalf of the referred clients.
Prosecutors said the scheme worked so well that Silver made $3 million off of cases referred to his firm by Taub.
But the doctor also got his due, the court papers said.
Silver sent $500,000 in state funds to the Mesothelioma Center in 2006 and 2007, prosecutors said. The money came in two $250,000 grants from a funding stream that didn't require Silver to disclose where he directed the sums.
"Silver wants referrals so he can substantially increase his income even without doing a lick of work," Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said in describing the alleged scheme.
"What the doctor wants is money to fund his research at a hospital in New York," Bharara added. "It turns out that the doctor is in luck... Sheldon Silver has access to enormous amounts of public money."
Silver also helped the doctor in 2008 by sending $25,000 in state funding to a nonprofit that had Taub's relative as a member of its board, according to the complaint.
In 2011, Silver helped honor Taub at an event held by a "nationwide cancer organization," the complaint added. A year later, Silver helped Taub's family member get a job at a nonprofit that received millions of dollars in state funding.
A secretary at Taub's medical practice in Washington Heights said he was meeting with a patient when DNAinfo New York called for a request for comment.
Columbia University Medical Center said it didn't know of Taub and Silver's connection before the charges were announced Thursday.
"We had no knowledge of these allegations and will cooperate fully with the U.S. Attorney's investigation," Columbia said in a statement.
The complaint states that Taub had reached an agreement with prosecutors in which he wouldn't face any criminal charges in exchange for his cooperation as a witness.
Silver faces wire fraud and other charges, and he was released on $200,000 bail Thursday. He said he "will be vindicated" after the hearing.
Weitz & Luxenberg said it was "not involved" in the alleged wrongdoing.