MANHATTAN — A federal appeals court on Thursday overturned the 2015 conviction of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, once one of the most powerful men in Albany, for public corruption.
The three-judge panel pointed to a 2016 United States Supreme Court ruling on Republican governor of Virginia Bob McDonnell that used a more narrow definition of what constitutes an "official act" under the public corruption statute, ruling that a jury instructed on that definition may not have found Silver guilty.
Silver was sentenced to 12 years in federal prison after he was convicted on charges of extortion, fraud and money laundering related to bribery schemes in which he received millions for political favors.
But Manhattan federal Judge Valeri Caproni allowed the start of his prison time to be pushed back while waiting on the Supreme Court's decision on McDonnell, as it could be germane to his appeal.
Silver’s conviction had rested on the premise that he had performed “official acts” in exchange for kickbacks in two bribery schemes, according to the decision.
In one scheme, prosecutors charged, he had performed favors for a doctor who in return referred patients to Silver’s law firm; as a result, Silver netted roughly $3 million in referral fees.
In the other scheme, Silver used his political power to sway legislation on rent regulation and tax abatement in favor of developers who in turn hired an attorney that was funneling Silver a percentage of their legal fees. Silver received around $835,000 for that referral.
For those acts, a jury found him guilty of fraud and extortion as well as for laundering the funds.
But the jury had been instructed to define an “official act” broadly as “any action taken or to be taken under color of official authority.”
That definition was called into question when the Supreme Court, in tossing a corruption conviction against McDonnell, more specifically defined “official act” as pertaining to a “question, matter, cause suit, proceeding or controversy” involving “a formal exercise of governmental power.”
In light of the new Supreme Court decision, the appellate court decided the jury had been wrongly instructed and that if they had taken into account the revised definition, they may not have found Silver guilty.