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Opening Statements Begin In Trial Of Ex-NY Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) -- A prosecutor kicked off former New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver's corruption trial Tuesday by saying the lawmaker used his "enormous power'' to make about $5 million illegally.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Carrie Cohen addressed a Manhattan federal court jury as opening statements began.

The longtime powerful Democrat was arrested in January on charges he accepted nearly $5 million in kickbacks and bribes. Cohen says he made another million by investing the illegal gains.

Silver is accused of participating in two separate schemes -- one to collect referral fees for lining up grants for a doctor's research, the other to steer big developers to a law firm, CBS2's Jessica Schneider reported.

Silver is accused of steering state grants to Dr. Robert Taub under the guise of cancer research. The Feds say Dr. Taub then referred his patients to the law firm Weitz and Luxenbourg, which gave Silver millions in attorney's fees as kickbacks.

Silver has pleaded not guilty, saying he will be vindicated at trial, which is expected to last up to six weeks.

His lawyers say prosecutors are unjustly criminalizing practices long sanctioned in Albany.

"This may make you uncomfortable, but this is the system New York has chosen, and that is not a crime," his lawyer, Steven Mole, told jurors Tuesday, WCBS 880's Alex Silverman reported.

The defense said lawmakers are allowed to have jobs and outside income and regularly engage in deal making.

"You will not find Mr. Silver has a corrupt intent, you will not find a bribery scheme. Mr. Silver has served the people of New York consistent with that system," Mole said in his opening statement.

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.

Prosecutors told the jury at least five times Silver operated out of "power, greed and corruption."

"This case is about a powerful politician who betrayed those he was supposed to serve in order to line his pockets," prosecutors said.

The Feds put Westchester Assemblywoman Amy Paulin on the stand to teach the jury about how the state house works. It all came down to the power of the speaker, portraying Silver as the gatekeeper of legislation and overlord of the chamber.

"What happened to the last Democrat who tried to challenge Sheldon Silver?" prosecutors asked.

"He was ostracized until he left," Paulin said.

Mole asked Paulin about her husband's financial expenses, asking whether she backed a vaccine bill that would have increased the value of her husband's stock in Merck.

Paulin called that line of questioning "sexist."

Silver stepped down from his speaker post after his arrest but retained his Assembly seat. The charges he faces carry a potential penalty of 130 years in prison upon conviction.

Months after Silver's arrest, prosecutors charged the state Senate leader, Dean Skelos, with extortion and soliciting bribes. They said Skelos, the state's most powerful Republican official at the time, used his position to earn hundreds of thousands of dollars for his son, who also was charged.

Skelos has said he and his son will be found innocent. They go to trial this month as well.

If convicted, Silver could face up to 20 years in prison.

(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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