Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver used September 11 to justify steering $500G to doctor: letter

Greg B. Smith, New York Daily News

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver used the September 11 attacks to justify steering $500,000 in taxpayer dollars to a Columbia University doctor who was secretly helping him pocket millions in bogus “referral fees,” according to a letter obtained by the Daily News.

In the letter dated July 5, 2005, Silver promised the public money would go toward vital research on residents and workers at the site of the World Trade Center terror attacks who may have been exposed to asbestos when the buildings collapsed.

Last week, Silver was charged with reaping nearly $4 million in bribes and kickbacks through two schemes carried out over the last 15 years.

At the crux of the case against him is a secret arrangement Silver made with Dr. Robert Taub, a Yale-educated oncologist researching a cure for asbestos-related cancer at New York Presbyterian-Columbia University Medical Center in Upper Manhattan.

In the letter on Assembly stationery, Silver directed the state Department of Health to grant $250,000 to a program at Columbia, specifically noting that Taub was the “project director.”

“Your assistance in expediting this grant would be greatly appreciated,” Silver wrote to Executive Deputy Health Commissioner Dennis Whalen.

According to a “legislative initiative form” attached to the letter, the money was to fund research into “occurrences of such cancers in individuals exposed to asbestos and other materials released into the air during the attacks of September 11, 2001.”

The funding, Silver’s request stated, would be used for “outreach to residents and workers in Lower Manhattan who may be at risk of mesothelioma and other cancers because of such exposure.”

DOH complied with the powerful Assembly speaker’s request and doled out the $250,000 to Taub, and then did it again in 2007 when Silver made another request, bringing the total Taub received from the state to $500,000.

On Friday, neither the state Health Department nor Columbia officials could provide any information on how the money was spent, although multiple medical papers published by Taub during that time period make clear he was deeply immersed in doing research on mesothelioma.

Prosecutors say that connecting the dots between the doctor and the state money provided by Silver was difficult because the cash came from a poorly monitored state fund that Silver controlled. In 2007, the state took the fund out of his hands and turned it over to the executive branch.

As a result, when Taub asked for more money, Silver told him the program was over, prosecutors and sources say.

The doctor, who was removed on Friday as head of the Columbia University Medical Center’s Mesothelioma Center, is now cooperating against Silver, having entered into an agreement with Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara to provide testimony in exchange for not being prosecuted.

Taub’s attorney, Lisa Zornberg, said, “Dr. Taub is an exceptional doctor who has devoted his life to helping patients. He is cooperating with the government’s investigation.”

In the criminal complaint filed last week against Silver, which references the letter the speaker wrote to the Health Department, Bharara charged that an unnamed doctor, identified by multiple sources as Taub, was the key player in helping Silver carry out a scheme to collect fees without doing any actual work.

The scheme began shortly after Silver joined Weitz & Luxenberg, a firm that specialized in suing companies on behalf of people suffering with asbestos-related cancers. In November 2003, Silver met Taub through a mutual friend who was not named by prosecutors.

Some law firms that handle asbestos cases sponsor mesothelioma research, but Taub knew the Weitz firm did not. Nevertheless, he asked Silver if the firm could help him out.

Silver said no, but soon after the doctor learned Silver wanted him to refer asbestos patients to him at the Weitz firm. The doctor — to “create and maintain a relationship with Silver,” prosecutors said — began to do so. Silver warned the doctor not to discuss the arrangement with their mutual friend, prosecutors say.

Within weeks, Taub’s relationship with Silver would bear fruit, as Silver suggested that the doctor write a letter to him requesting state money for his research — which he did.

The wheels were set in motion, and taxpayers began footing the bill for Taub’s research by mid-2005. Even after Silver cut off the state funds, Taub kept referring patients to the Weitz firm, though in much smaller numbers because he’d found another law firm to fund his work.

Silver also would later steer $25,000 to a nonprofit whose board included a relative of Taub’s, and the speaker helped another of the doctor’s relatives get a job at another nonprofit Silver regularly funded.

A public sign of their relationship surfaced on May 10, 2011, when Silver sponsored a “commemoration” bill in the legislature honoring Taub as “a leader in his profession” who “has proven himself to be a great asset to medicine and to the health and welfare of the citizens of the State of New York.”

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