- Associated Press - Wednesday, November 4, 2015

NEW YORK (AP) - A prominent Columbia University doctor told a federal jury on Wednesday that he agreed to refer asbestos cancer patients to former New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s law firm so it could seek multimillion-dollar settlements from personal injury lawsuits.

Afterward, Silver directed $500,000 in state grants to a research center at the school in the early 2000s, Dr. Robert Taub testified at the once-powerful Democrat’s corruption trial in Manhattan.

“I gave referrals to Mr. Silver to maintain a relationship whereby he would help mesothelioma research and help these patients,” said Taub, who also admitted that he lied to investigators when they first asked him about the referrals.

But on cross-examination, Taub claimed he didn’t consider the interactions a quid pro quo that prosecutors allege constituted a bribery scheme.

“You did not have an explicit arrangement to exchange patients for grants, did you?” asked defense attorney Steven Molo.

“I did not,” the doctor responded.

Silver, 71, has pleaded not guilty to charges that he amassed $5 million in illicit income through extortion and bribery in his two-decade reign as speaker. His lawyers claim overzealous prosecutors are attempting to criminalize how politics is practiced in Albany.

Taub told jurors during the trial’s second day that he believed it was part of his mission to raise money for mesothelioma research.

“I was put on this earth to help these people,” said the 79-year-old witness. “That’s the way I feel about it. … You can’t do research without money.”

Taub testified that he knew referrals were “very valuable” to law firms like Silver’s that specialize in asbestos litigation, and believed the firms had a social obligation to donate to research. When a mutual friend informed him that Silver wanted him to refer patients to the firm, he saw an opportunity to help his cause, he said.

Once Taub began referring the first of what turned out to be dozens of patients to Silver, the assemblyman encouraged him to write him a letter asking for state money for his research center. Soon after, the doctor received the first of two $250,000 grants.

He testified that Silver asked him not to reveal the arrangement to their mutual friend. The lawmaker “just wanted it kept between me and him,” he said.

The witness described how a few months before Silver’s 2015 arrest, two federal agents showed up at his door at 6 a.m. and asked if he had referred asbestos victims to Silver.

“I denied doing so because I was fearful and panicked, and I irrationally wanted to divorce myself from any pending investigation,” he said.

Taub testified that he later came clean and agreed to testify against Silver under a non-prosecution agreement.

Once news of the doctor’s involvement in the case broke, Columbia tried to fire him, he said. He sued the school to get his job back and has been reinstated pending the outcome of the case, he said.

The trial is expected to last at least a month.

___

Associated Press writer Larry Neumeister contributed to this report.

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