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The Sheldon Silver Scandal and Where We Are on Asbestos Corruption

Business lobbyists are cheering the possible downfall of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver walks on the floor in the Assembly Chamber at the start of the 2015 legislative session at the state Capitol in Albany, New York on Jan. 7, 2015.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver walks on the floor in the Assembly Chamber at the start of the 2015 legislative session at the state Capitol in Albany, New York on Jan. 7, 2015.

Photographer: Mike Groll/AP Photo

The arrest of New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver on federal corruption charges Thursday roiled Albany politics and inflicted grave damage on Silver's fellow Democrats. In a strange twist, the graft accusations against the second-most powerful figure in New York state politics, after Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo, elicited applause from national business lobbyists. Why? Asbestos litigation. Here's what you need to know:

Corporate advocates see the Silver case as ammunition against the plaintiffs' bar. Among the main charges filed against the 70-year-old legislative leader is an allegation that he used his political position to steer asbestos cases to Weitz & Luxenberg, a potent personal-injury law firm based in Manhattan. Federal prosecutors accused Silver of funneling $500,000 in state research funds, as well as other benefits, to a physician who, in exchange, referred asbestos cases to Weitz & Luxenberg. The law firm paid more than $3 million in "referral fees" to Silver, according to prosecutors. Business interests got excited by these revelations because fighting corruption in asbestos cases has become a major cause among corporate advocates. "This country has seen over 100 [corporate] bankruptcies and countless jobs lost" as a result of dubious asbestos lawsuits, Lisa Rickard, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Institute for Legal Reform in Washington, said in a statement on the Silver case. "It's time for a serious look into potential criminal activity relating to abusive asbestos litigation so that we can end this shameful abuse of our civil justice system."