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Ex-New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver's Corruption Trial Underway

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) -- Jury selection is underway in the corruption trial of a former New York Assembly speaker charged with accepting nearly $4 million in payoffs and kickbacks.

Federal Judge Valerie Caproni is questioning several dozen prospective jurors individually to identify biases that could contaminate Sheldon Silver's trial.

Opening statements are expected Tuesday. The 71-year-old Manhattan Democrat was arrested in January. He is free on bail.

In court Monday, Silver wore a dark suit with pinstripes. He stood up as the judge introduced him to the nearly 80 prospective jurors, 1010 WINS' Juliet Papa reported. One woman with a family full of lawyers told the judge she thought people weren't treated fairly by the criminal justice system.

Potential jurors were told there will likely be witnesses who were given immunity, WCBS 880's Ginny Kosola reported. One man said he believed if a witness cut a deal that person would not be truthful no matter what. He was excused.

Silver said he will be vindicated at trial. His lawyers say federal prosecutors are unfairly going after him for practices that have long been sanctioned in Albany.

"At bottom, what the government objects to in this case is not actual federal crimes but rather longstanding features of New York state government that the U.S. attorney finds distasteful,'' Silver's lawyers wrote in court papers.

Prosecutors, though, argue it is criminal for politicians to get rich working side jobs with those who can benefit from laws written in the state Capitol. They say Silver seems to be planning a smoke-and-mirrors defense aimed at leaving jurors confused about what's right and wrong.

In one recent filing, prosecutors said Silver plans to elicit testimony from witnesses about state anti-bribery laws and state ethics rules, creating a sideshow or "mini-trial'' to "confuse the issues, mislead the jury, and unnecessarily prolong what already promises to be a lengthy, multi-week trial.''

The case against Silver focuses on outside employment. Multiple counts of honest services fraud and extortion along with a money laundering charge carry a potential penalty of 130 years in prison.

At one law firm specializing in personal injury and asbestos removal, Weitz & Luxenberg, Silver collected millions of dollars in referral fees for lining up state grants for a doctor's research, according to prosecutors. Prosecutors say the law firm had no knowledge of the alleged scheme.

At a firm specializing in real estate tax law, Silver received big fees for using his political clout to steer powerful developers to the firm as clients, authorities said.

The trial is the first of two to begin in November involving two men who had been among three of the state's most powerful politicians.

Later in November, former New York Senate leader Dean Skelos will stand trial with his son on extortion and bribe charges. He has said he and his son are innocent.

Silver stepped down from his speaker post after his arrest, but he continues to hold his legislative seat while fighting the charges. First elected in 1976, he represents a district on Manhattan's Lower East Side, where he was born and raised.

(TM and © Copyright 2015 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2015 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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