How late N.Y. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver used elected position to reap millions from cancer victims – New York Daily News

Former New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver died in January at age 77 while serving a 6½-year federal prison term on bribery and money laundering charges. This excerpt from Daily News journalist Bill Sanderson’s upcoming book “Do For Me” describes how Silver began raking in $3 million from people suffering from mesothelioma, a deadly cancer.

Robert Taub took offense when a lawyer asked him in court how much time he spent seeing patients in his job as head of the Mesothelioma Center at New York Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia Medical Center. It was not a job, Taub insisted. “It is a calling.”

Medicine and cancer research were Taub’s calling. Over time, Taub saw every kind of cancer case, and came to focus on mesothelioma. “It’s a bad disease to have, a terrible disease,” he said. Mesothelioma is usually caused by exposure to asbestos, and is nearly always fatal.

Taub became a professor of medicine in December 1980 at Columbia University, and practiced medicine at New York Presbyterian Hospital in upper Manhattan. His mesothelioma practice expanded during the 1990s. By 2000, mesothelioma cases were half of his patient workload.

Taub said his byline appeared on more than 150 scientific journal articles. His research was backed by several big drug companies.

“I love the work that I do. That’s the only thing I can say,” Taub once said. “I really feel very privileged to be able to take care of these people. This is a very terrible disease. I feel that I’m good at it.”

Mesothelioma didn’t just threaten the lives of Taub’s patients. It also damaged their families’ finances. “There are tremendous numbers of medical bills,” Taub said. Helping his patients cope with their financial problems “is a very important part of their care.”

Taub knew his patients and their families could get money by filing claims with asbestos trusts. The trusts, set up largely with funds from bankrupt asbestos companies or their insurers, are believed to contain around $30 billion. Mesothelioma patients can also sue companies that manufactured or used asbestos. Lawyers get 25% to 40% of whatever they win for their clients from the trusts or from lawsuits.

Bill Sanderson's book, "Do For Me."

Taub observed that about two-thirds of his new mesothelioma patients had lawyers. He advised his patients without lawyers to seek them.

“I’m not fond of any firm,” Taub said.

“He viewed them with disdain,” said Mary Hesdorffer, who for several years was Taub’s nurse. Taub called the mesothelioma lawyers “ambulance chasers, and he would chuckle about it.”

Taub believed law firms like Weitz & Luxenberg that specialize in mesothelioma cases profited too much from the trusts set up to help mesothelioma victims. “Weitz & Luxenberg, like all those companies that get money from patients … they in a sense are obligated to support research into the disease as well,” he said.

Weitz & Luxenberg’s reluctance to support mesothelioma research was born of the firm’s worry that doctors who testified in its cases would be seen as biased if judges or juries learned the firm funded their research. But Taub knew other law firms supported work to cure mesothelioma, and suggested them to his patients instead.

One day in 2003, Taub came across what seemed like a way to persuade Weitz & Luxenberg to pitch in. The firm sent him a letter seeking medical records of one of his patients. He spotted Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s name on the long list of Weitz & Luxenberg lawyers on the letterhead. Silver was among many state legislators with outside jobs.

Sheldon Silver leaving federal court in New York on May 3, 2016.

Taub and Silver moved in some of the same social circles. They also had a mutual friend — Daniel Chill, a lawyer and Albany political operative. Taub asked Chill to set up a meeting.

During their discussion, Taub told Silver of his work with the Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation, which raises money for mesothelioma research. “I wanted to ask him to convince his firm or influence his firm to contribute to MARF,” Taub said.

Silver answered that “he just could not do that.”

But Silver did not forget their conversation.

Chill contacted Taub a few days later. He asked Taub to refer patients to Weitz & Luxenberg via Silver.

“Shelly wants cases,” Chill told him.

Taub saw the referrals as useful to his work. “My purpose was to incentivize Mr. Silver to be an advocate for mesothelioma patients and help raise funds for research,” Taub explained.

In September 2003, Catherine O’Leary of New Jersey was diagnosed with mesothelioma. She asked a friend to refer her to a lawyer. Thus she ended up on the phone with John Dearie, a former state Assembly member with a personal injury law practice.

O’Leary asked Dearie if he knew a doctor who could treat her disease. Dearie sent her to Taub’s clinic. That referral cost him a big fee.

Taub’s nurse, Mary Hesdorffer, one day saw Taub come out of his examining room with O’Leary.

The doctor put his arm around O’Leary’s shoulder. “Do you have an attorney?” he asked. According to a Weitz & Luxenberg internal email, Taub told O’Leary that Dearie was “no good” as a lawyer, and that she should call Silver instead.

The office of Weitz & Luxenberg on 700 Broadway in Manhattan in 2015.

Seeing Taub urge a lawyer upon one of his patients made Hesdorffer livid. “It was a turning point — something different,” she said.

In her view, Taub’s action was deeply wrong. She also believed patients were uncomfortable with the idea that their doctor would refer them to a law firm. “It was really bad practice. It was unethical. I couldn’t understand.”

“I told him it was slimy and it was unbecoming. … I wanted nothing to do with it,” she said.

Taub responded by calling her “a schoolteacher, a nun — I was too rigid.”

Weitz & Luxenberg entered O’Leary’s case in its records on November 6, 2003. O’Leary’s was the first of 48 mesothelioma cases Taub referred to Silver and Weitz & Luxenberg over the following decade.

Asbestos cases can go on for years. Weitz & Luxenberg lawyers were still working on O’Leary’s behalf in 2012, six years after her death.

Over time, her compensation for her illness totaled about $510,000, according to a Weitz & Luxenberg accounting. O’Leary and her estate got $344,000 of that sum. Weitz & Luxenberg took a fee of $166,000 and handed a third of it—about $55,400—to Silver.

Silver’s fee would have gone to Dearie if Taub hadn’t told O’Leary that Dearie was “no good.” Dearie referred many cases to Weitz & Luxenberg over the years — he said the firm did good work for his clients — and he was not angry about losing a fee to Silver.

Word got back to Taub that Silver was pleased. “Mr. Chill told me that Mr. Silver expressed the thought that I was being a very good friend,” Taub said.

Taub talked up Silver and Weitz & Luxenberg with his patients. He said that Silver, “because of his stature in the state and because he was a member of that law firm as well — that it would enhance their legal treatment at the firm. They would do better.”

There is no evidence Silver was involved in handling any mesothelioma cases he referred to Weitz & Luxenberg. He prepared no briefs, filed no papers, and never appeared in court. Rarely — if ever — did Silver even speak to the patients Taub referred to him.

All Silver did was hand the information Taub gave him to Weitz & Luxenberg lawyer Charles Ferguson, who was the firm’s manager of asbestos litigation.

Sheldon Silver after he was sentenced in federal court on July 20, 2020.

“He gave me the name of the individual, the patient, the victim,” Ferguson said. Silver also gave him “a telephone number, a very brief little history of when that person was diagnosed, maybe a little work history as well, how they might have been exposed to asbestos.”

Taub got something he wanted from the arrangement: New York state money for his research. “It’s always good to get funds…. the more money you get, the more research you can do,” Taub said.

Soon after Silver handed Catherine O’Leary’s name to Weitz & Luxenberg, Chill asked Taub to write Silver a letter seeking a state grant.

The money Silver sent to Taub’s clinic came from state taxes on health insurance and health services. State law allowed Silver, as Assembly speaker, to allocate without any public disclosure $8.5 million for health-related projects.

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In February 2006 — more than two years after Taub and Silver started the process — the grant had the needed state government rubber stamps, and Taub’s lab got its $250,000.

In November 2006, Taub and Silver started the process all over again. The second $250,000 grant was approved more quickly, in June 2007.

Silver transmitted dozens of cases from Taub’s examining rooms to Weitz & Luxenberg. Over the years, these cases brought the firm millions in revenue.

Weitz & Luxenberg paid Taub nothing. But the firm gladly paid Silver one-third of the fees it earned from the cases he brought in.

Mary Hesdorffer was bothered that her boss handed their patients’ names to law firms that made big money off their cases. The patients told her they were uncomfortable that Taub referred them to lawyers.

Aside from her ethical concerns, Hesdorffer also feared Taub was breaking the law. “I told him they would take him out in handcuffs.”

Taub’s involvement in Silver’s scheme cost him his job at Columbia University, but he was never charged with a crime.


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