In Silver Case, U.S. Cites Link to Litigation Tied to Asbestos

By Dionne Searcey, Anemona Hartocollis, Russ Buettner And David W. Chen

In the criminal complaint against Sheldon Silver, he is identified simply as “Doctor­1.”

But Dr. Robert N. Taub, who headed a Columbia University center dedicated to curing a rare form of cancer caused by asbestos, is no ordinary doctor.

With a reputation as a devoted clinician intent on trying out innovative therapies, Dr. Taub is something of a hero in the world of mesothelioma, a devastating cancer that is nearly always fatal. Specializing in abdominal cases, a particularly horrific form of the disease, Dr. Taub, 78, attracted last­chance patients from across the country and the world.

The balding, bow­tied oncologist would then seem to be the unlikeliest of candidates to become caught up in a criminal scheme that may lead to the downfall of Mr. Silver, the longtime speaker of the New York State Assembly and one of the state’s most powerful politicians.

Dr. Taub, however, was obsessive about raising money for mesothelioma research, according to current and former colleagues.

That, it turns out, helped set off the extraordinary chain of events that culminated with Mr. Silver surrendering to federal agents on Thursday and the doctor losing his post on Friday. Prosecutors say Dr. Taub referred his patients to a law firm that employed Mr. Silver, enabling him to garner millions. In exchange, Mr. Silver secretly directed state money to the doctor’s center.

Funding is extremely hard to come by in Dr. Taub’s field. Mesothelioma produces tumors that encase organs in a hardened shell. But relatively few people suffer from the disease — it is diagnosed in about 3,000 people a year — and the number is in decline as the dangers of asbestos have become well known.

That makes the disease a low priority for the government and drug companies. As a result, mesothelioma doctors and personal injury lawyers specializing in asbestos­related litigation have developed over the years what some medical ethical experts describe as an unseemly alliance.

For plaintiffs’ lawyers, mesothelioma patients are a bonanza, worth $1.5 million to $2 million on average per case, according to legal experts; individual cases can yield much more. The hunger for these clients is evident to anyone who has watched late­night cable television and seen the garish ads aimed at those afflicted with the disease.

Mesothelioma doctors can offer a direct path to a big payday for law firms, whose courting of such doctors can be relentless, with dinner invitations, tickets to Yankees games and offers of work as expert witnesses. Some doctors, in turn, have set up research centers and asked lawyers to contribute.

A symbiotic relationship has emerged, with lawyers financing research on the disease for doctors who send along streams of potentially lucrative clients.

In 2002, Dr. Taub created one of the nation’s few mesothelioma research hubs, the Columbia University Mesothelioma Center. He was also active in an organization that raised money for research, sitting on the scientific advisory board of one of the few nonprofits created to help victims, the Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation. The foundation, which awards research grants, relies heavily on gifts from law firms.

Around the same time in 2002, Mr. Silver, a Manhattan Democrat, joined one of the top personal injury law firms in the country, Weitz & Luxenberg, which says it handles about 500 new mesothelioma and other asbestos­related cancer cases a year. The firm’s roots can be traced to the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Perry Weitz, a founder of the firm, obtained $75 million for three dozen workers sickened after toiling in asbestos­lined boiler rooms there. As is typical in such cases, the firm got about one­third of that sum in the form of contingency fees.

The law practice has supported an opulent lifestyle for the firm’s founders. Mr. Weitz, for instance, owns a seven­bedroom, nine­and­a­half­ bathroom home on 509 acres just outside Aspen, Colo.

At first, Mr. Silver drew a salary of just $120,000 a year from the firm, which had hired him because of his prestige in Albany, Mr. Weitz said in an interview on Friday. According to the complaint against Mr. Silver, it was Dr. Taub who first pressed the Assembly speaker about his new employer donating money to mesothelioma research.

The request was in line with the urgency with which Dr. Taub viewed his work, colleagues said.

“I wouldn’t necessarily say desperate, that sounds disparaging,” said Dr. Michael D. Kluger, a surgeon and member of Dr. Taub’s team. “But going to all means to do what he needs to do, to be able to treat the disease.”

Patients to Plaintiffs

Dr. Taub knew from his work with the patient foundation that Weitz & Luxenberg stood out among top asbestos law firms at the time as having provided little financial support for research.

It is unclear when he and Mr. Silver first met — a mutual acquaintance introduced them, the complaint says. Both are Orthodox Jews and graduates of Yeshiva University, although Dr. Taub is eight years older than Mr. Silver.

Despite Dr. Taub’s overtures, Mr. Silver told him the firm would not be able to donate. Later, however, Mr. Silver asked Dr. Taub to start referring patients to the firm. The doctor complied, eager to curry favor with the powerful Assembly speaker and to attract money for his research, the complaint says.

The first client came from Dr. Taub in November 2003. And as Weitz & Luxenberg collected payouts on the cases, Mr. Silver’s law firm income swelled. By 2005, hundreds of thousands of dollars in client referral fees were coming into Mr. Silver’s bank account from the Weitz firm.

Mr. Silver inappropriately pocketed about $4 million from two different law firms — Weitz & Luxenberg and a real estate law firm, according to prosecutors. Most of the illicit funds, the complaint indicates, came from the Weitz firm, which paid him more than $5 million in all. Mr. Weitz said that Mr. Silver, who kept an office in the firm’s

headquarters, sent just four or five cases a year to the firm, but each one had the potential to be hugely valuable. “Shelly always would bring in an occasional personal injury case,” said Mr. Weitz, whose firm is not accused of wrongdoing. “When you’re a well­known lawyer in the community, people come to you when they have problems.”

The complaint, however, says Mr. Silver steered more than 100 clients to the firm over 11 years, most of them for asbestos litigation. Prosecutors say he never personally met with any of the asbestos clients, merely passing on names and phone numbers.

Soon after Dr. Taub began referring patients, Mr. Silver told him to write a letter and request state funds for his research. The doctor did so.

In 2005, just as Mr. Silver’s referral income from the Weitz firm began to balloon, records show that he directed a state grant worth $250,000 to Dr. Taub for asbestos research, ostensibly related to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. In October 2006, Dr. Taub wrote to Mr. Silver to request another $250,000 grant. A few months later, the money arrived.

Both times, the plans submitted by Dr. Taub’s center said the money would go toward studying the general treatment of mesothelioma, making only passing reference to those who may have been exposed to asbestos after the attacks on the World Trade Center.

At the time, the grants were hidden from public view, drawn from a pool of money that Mr. Silver awarded at his discretion without having to disclose where it went, the complaint said.

That program ended in 2007, and Mr. Silver stopped directing money to Dr. Taub, the complaint says, even as the doctor continued to press Mr. Silver for more.

Dr. Taub kept referring patients to Mr. Silver, according to the court papers. And Mr. Silver continued to offer him favors.

Help Close to Home

In 2008, the complaint says, the speaker directed $25,000 to a nonprofit whose board of directors included a relative of Dr. Taub’s.

Shalom Task Force, a Jewish organization that promotes healthy marriages, where Dr. Taub’s wife, Susan Taub, is on the board, received $25,000 in state funds that year, records show.

In 2010, court papers say, Dr. Taub began to get financial support from a foundation tied to another law firm and to send patients there. Columbia’s website notes a $3.15 million commitment for mesothelioma research from the foundation of the Simmons Law Firm, an asbestos law firm. In a statement, the firm said it was proud to sponsor research at Columbia and elsewhere.

The Weitz firm noticed that client referrals from Mr. Silver had dried up and asked about it. He assured the firm that they would continue. The complaint says he visited Dr. Taub at Columbia, and asked why the referrals had dwindled. Dr. Taub said he had a new source of financing for his research. Still, he continued to send patients Mr. Silver’s way. His goal was to be able to keep asking the Assembly speaker for help, prosecutors said.

In 2011, Mr. Silver sponsored an Assembly resolution honoring Dr. Taub that called him a “remarkable doctor” and a leader in the medical community “who had made significant contributions to the fight against cancer.”

According to the complaint and people briefed on the investigation, Dr. Taub also asked Mr. Silver in 2012 to help his son, Jonathan, find a job. The speaker arranged for an interview at OHEL Children’s Home and Family Services, a social services organization based in Brooklyn that had received millions of dollars in state funds from Mr. Silver.

Dr. Taub had grown increasingly anxious about his son’s career path, according to acquaintances who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they did not want to be associated with a criminal case. Jonathan Taub — who, according to public records, lists his parents’ Upper East Side address as his residence — had long seemed far more interested in playing bass guitar and blogging his right­leaning political views than in finding a permanent job, these acquaintances say. Mr. Taub is now employed by OHEL as an operations assistant, according to his LinkedIn profile.

For his part, Dr. Taub served as an expert witness for the Weitz firm as recently as a 2013 case in federal court in Pennsylvania. Legal records show that his rate for working on the case was $1,750 per hour, plus $7,500 per day for testimony when overnight travel was required.

According to the complaint, Mr. Silver received his last referral fee payment from the Weitz firm in November.

Dr. Taub, who has received a nonprosecution agreement in exchange for his cooperation in the case, did not respond to calls for comment. His lawyer, Lisa Zornberg, called him “an exceptional doctor who has devoted his life to helping patients.”

On Friday, Columbia announced that it would dissolve his mesothelioma center.