While pondering the legal mess surrounding NYS Assembly Speaker "Smelly Shelly" Silver, Jeffrey Toobin offers us a "war story" from yesteryear
Smelly Shelly is talking about delegating powers, but not -- at least so far -- about stepping down.
I still owe you a post on my imagined link between former Russian oil oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky and now-indicted NYS Assembly Speaker "Smelly Shelly" Silver, charged -- as The New Yorker's esteemed legal correspondent, Jeffrey Toobin, sums it up -- "with taking more than four million dollars in bribes disguised as legal fees." That post is still coming.
Meanwhile, a quick update. Once the immediate dust of Smelly Shelly's arrest and indictment settled, it began occurring to all concerned, even the Smellyman himself, despite his protestations of innocence and his plan for vinciation, that while the case moves through whatever process it will be moving through, the Assembly can't proceed as if nothing has happened. Naturally there were calls for Shelly to quit, calls that have gone unanswered, unless we count the implied "not on your life" as a reply.
A cynical observer might observe that if Shelly gives up his Assembly seat in general and the Assembly speakership in particular, he gives up his best, perhaps only, bargaining chip. After all, didn't that work out just great for indicted Staten Island Congressman "Mikey Suits" Grimm? It wasn't till after Mikey was reelected to Congress in November that it became clear just how important holding on to his House seat was for him. However much federal prosecutors might have liked to pursue the case, not just the already announced indictments but whatever additional charges were being investigated, their first priority had to be getting the slimeball out of Congress.
Possibly no such thing is on Smelly Shelly's mind, but it clearly has occurred to him that while his legal troubles are hanging over him, he can't simply continue to go about his, and the state's, business. He can't, for example, continue being one of those storied "three men in a room," watching over the state's business along with the governor and the state Senate majority leader. In fact, there's an awful lot of his job that can't very well be done by someone in the position he now finds himself in. And so he began talking about delegating powers to certain carefully selected (and apparently still to be selected) Assembly members. It's still not clear whether he's talking about all of his powers or only certain selected powers.
Meanwhile Assembly Democrats appear to be thinking more along the lines of "Shut the door behind you on your way the hell out, Shelly!" Again, this is a bit vague -- are they suggesting, for example, that Shelly merely step down from the speakership or quit his Assembly seat altogether? It's not clear. It's not clear, for that matter, how keen Shelly would be to continue hanging out in Albany as a back-bencher.
For what it's worth, no, there is no obvious candidate to take over the speakership, and by "obvious candidate" I mean "anyone who has the votes" to seal the deal, even if, as Assembly Democrats seem to be hoping, Smelly Shelly simply disappeared. It's said, though, that part of the thinking of the Assembly Democrats in calling off today's session in addition to yesterday's is that minimizes the opportunity for Assembly Republicans to share their thoughts on the subject in any official way.
ONCE UPON A TIME --
So the situation remains, shall we say, "fluid." At this moment the aforementioned Jeffrey Toobin has chosen to offer us a little legal comic diversion, diversion with perhaps a tinge of legal "moral," in the form of a newyorker.com blogpost called "Sheldon Silver and the Lawyers of New York." Noting that "much of the case against Silver rests on his relationship with Weitz and Luxenberg, the law firm where he was employed for many years," and that that firm was co-founded by "a very successful lawyer named Perry Weitz," Jeffrey asks us to permit him "a war story," concerning the law firm where Perry Weitz started his career, Morris Eisen, P.C., "an outfit so extravagantly corrupt, so hilariously dishonest, and so creatively malign as almost to defy belief." (Morris Eisen, Jeffrey informs us, was Perry Weitz's father-in-law.)
For the record, Jeffrey makes clear that "the young Perry Weitz was not implicated in the original investigation or in the criminal trial of the Eisen firm," and for that matter that "while the firm of Weitz and Luxenberg, which specializes in personal-injury cases involving asbestos, is mentioned more than twenty times in the criminal complaint against Silver, neither Weitz nor the firm has been charged with any crimes," and the firm claims to be cooperating fully with authorities. He allows that this blast from the past may be "just a big coincidence." Or maybe not, he seems to suggest.
JEFFREY TOOBIN'S "WAR STORY"
When I was a federal prosecutor in the early nineties, in Brooklyn, my favorite case involved the law firm known as Morris Eisen, P.C., an outfit so extravagantly corrupt, so hilariously dishonest, and so creatively malign as almost to defy belief. The firm dealt largely in personal-injury cases, often representing individuals against those thought to have deep pockets, especially the City of New York. (New York taxpayers, who were the actual defendants in these cases, may not have thought of themselves in that way.)
The business model for the Eisen firm was to fake evidence. Sometimes the lawyers embellished the facts of accidents, and sometimes it simply invented incidents altogether. Perry Weitz started his legal career at the Eisen firm, and Eisen himself was his father-in-law.
The Eisen team had great imaginations. Many of the firm’s cases involved accidents purportedly caused by potholes on New York City streets. One lawyer shrunk a twelve-inch ruler on a photocopier so that it was only about eight inches long. The shortened ruler would be placed by potholes and photographed, so that the potholes looked bigger than they actually were. (Sometimes, firm operatives just used pickaxes to make the potholes bigger.) An Eisen employee was injured at a firm softball game; after the game, the group went to find a suitable pothole at Aqueduct Raceway (deep pocket), where they could pretend the accident took place. The firm once won a seven-hundred-thousand-dollar settlement against the city because of an accident purportedly caused by a pothole on the Queensboro Bridge. A bystander named Arnold Lustig testified that he saw both the pothole and the accident. Six months later, the firm had another case involving a man killed on the Whitestone Expressway, in the Bronx. The eyewitness in that case? Arnold Lustig again! Alas, as my colleagues Jerome Roth and Faith Gay demonstrated, in what proved to be our office’s first Eisen trial, Lustig was actually in prison at the time he claimed to have seen the second accident.
As the Second Circuit Court of Appeals wrote, in affirming the convictions of seven Eisen firm attorneys, investigators, and office personnel (including Eisen himself), ‘‘The methods by which the frauds were accomplished included pressuring accident witnesses to testify falsely, paying individuals to testify falsely that they had witnessed accidents, paying unfavorable witnesses not to testify, and creating false photographs, documents, and physical evidence of accidents for use before and during trial.’’
Eisen was sentenced to fifty-seven months in prison, and served three years. He was disbarred in January, 1992. Reflecting the chutzpah that characterized the entire firm enterprise, Eisen commenced lawsuits, following his release, claiming that other firms had stolen legal fees that were legally due to the tragically disbanded Eisen firm.
The young Perry Weitz was not implicated in the original investigation or in the criminal trial of the Eisen firm. It is true, too, that, while the firm of Weitz and Luxenberg, which specializes in personal-injury cases involving asbestos, is mentioned more than twenty times in the criminal complaint against Silver, neither Weitz nor the firm has been charged with any crimes. A firm spokeswoman told the Wall Street Journal that the firm ‘‘fully coöperated’’ with the investigation and ‘‘wasn’t involved in any of the alleged wrongdoing.’’ In other words, according to the Weitz firm, its founder’s connection to one of the most notorious (proven) scams in New York legal history and one of the most notorious (alleged) scams is New York political history is just a big coincidence.
Perhaps it is. After all, in a parody-defying example of scandal convergence, Eisen himself had an appearance in yet another story, when, a dozen years after getting out of prison, he turned out to be one of the victims of Bernard Madoff’s own long con.