Former New York power brokers Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos, facing political corruption charges in Manhattan federal court, may be peering across the East River to see whether a trial unfolding in Brooklyn holds clues to their fate.
That’s where John Sampson, once the Democratic leader of the state Senate, will fight charges he obstructed a U.S. probe into his work as a court-appointed referee in foreclosure cases. For Silver, the ex-speaker of the Assembly, and Skelos, the former Senate majority leader, what matters is whether jurors focus on the facts of the case, or judge Sampson based on perceptions of rampant wrongdoing in Albany.
“They’ll be watching it closely,” said Jennifer Rodgers, executive director for the Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity at Columbia Law School in New York. “They’ll be very interested as they consider whether they actually want to go to trial or cut some sort of plea deal.”
Sampson, 50, faces a trial this week for allegedly calling in favors from associates -- a loan from a New York businessman and help from an ex-employee of the Brooklyn U.S. Attorney’s Office -- to cover up the theft of more than $300,000 from foreclosure sales in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Prosecutors allege he also used his position to have tax obligations wiped out for a liquor store he co-owned, and lied about his actions to federal investigators. Sampson has pleaded not guilty.
The case is the first political corruption trial in New York since Silver, a Democrat, and Skelos, a Republican, were arrested and charged this year by Manhattan federal prosecutors over allegations they used their power for illegal gain.
Silver is accused of obtaining about $4 million in kickbacks for referring real estate and personal injury business to law firms. Skelos is accused of obtaining more than $200,000 in payments for his son from parties seeking favorable legislative treatment. They have also pleaded not guilty to those allegations.
Sampson’s case “is in many ways a warm-up act” for Silver and Skelos, said Blair Horner, legislative director of the New York Public Interest Research Group. Sampson’s trial helps create “the atmosphere in which their cases will be heard.”
Public cynicism about the “drumbeat of scandals” in Albany could factor into jurors’ reading of all three cases, said Rodgers, who is also a former federal prosecutor.
“There is some cynicism, and polls where people say, ‘Oh, they’re all crooks, that’s just the way it is,’” Rodgers said. “It’s not helpful to these defendants.”
Sampson, who is from Brooklyn, has been working as a lawyer in New York since 1992 and was elected to the Senate in 1996. He held the role of a court-appointed foreclosure referee from 1998 to 2008 in his capacity as a private attorney.
Prosecutors alleged Sampson used part of the stolen foreclosure sale money to fund a failed bid to become the district attorney in Brooklyn. When he was charged in May 2013, then-Brooklyn U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch, now U.S. attorney general, called the case against Sampson “one of the most extreme examples of political hubris that we have seen.”
Sampson had already been re-elected in November but was stripped of his leadership roles and committee posts. He faces as long as 20 years in prison on the most serious charges if found guilty.
Nathaniel Akerman, a lawyer for Sampson, declined to comment on the case. Lawyers for Skelos and Silver didn’t immediately respond to phone and e-mail messages seeking comment.
The Brooklyn case is U.S. v. Sampson, 1:13-cr-00269, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of New York (Brooklyn).