April 16, 2008: New Yorkers can thank their lucky SARs that X Governor Eliot Spitzer had a thing for hookers. Or more accurately-- for pricey hookers run by international criminals who laundered payments through shell companies. If Spitzer had been doing cheap cash and carry on the streets of Albany (contrary to official reports, Mayor Jerry Jennings hasn't totally cleaned up crime) or NYC (ditto for Mayor Michael Bloomberg, particularly in the boroughs) his transactions wouldn't have triggered the Suspicious Activity Reporting (SAR) that reportedly triggered the IRS look-see that led to the governor's resignation in March. Meaning he'd still be in the state house, dodging investigations into the tangle known as Troopergate. But with Spitz gone, Troopergate is opening wide, revealing not just one measly scandal, but a political culture so airless it makes Jersey smell fresh.
Troopergate kicked off on July 1st 2007, when the Albany Times-Union (the state capital's only daily) ran a story about state Senate Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno (R.) and his use of state helicopters as transport to political fundraisers. The story relied on reports made by State Police assigned to provide security for Bruno and were obtained from top aides of Governor Eliot Spitzer via the Freedom Of Information Law (FOIL). Though folks tut-tutted over the idea that Bruno, one of the state's most powerful pols, might be abusing a taxpayer-funded privilege, New Yorkers are used to pols and their family and friends taking travel advantage. Examples: former Governors Mario Cuomo and George Pataki, former State Comptroller Alan Hevesi, and former Assemblyman Roger Green, chairman of several major committees, caucuses, and commissions in the New York State Assembly.
Official response to travel offenses can be spotty. Despite being convicted in 2004 of petty larceny for faking travel expenses, Assemblyman Green wasn't drummed out of the corps. Whereas Comptroller Hevesi got the bum's rush. Hevesi had a habit of putting state cars and drivers at his wife's disposal. The public wasn't sufficiently outraged (possibly because they liked his scathing audits of various agencies and authorities during the Pataki years) and re-elected the comptroller in November, 2006. Hevesi's newly elected Democratic running mates, Governor Eliot Spitzer and State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, plus outgoing Republican Governor Pataki and fixed-in-place Senator Bruno, denounced the comptroller. Hevesi refused to resign citing public support. However, when Albany County DA David Soares, a progressive reformer and Spitzer supporter, threatened felony charges, Hevesi caved.
After Hevesi departed the elected office of comptroller was filled by appointment. Governor Spitzer attempted to drop his own guy into the slot but was scotched by the State Legislature, who anointed one of their own.
Comptrollers have sole authority over the New York State Common Retirement Fund (CRF), the second largest pension fund in the nation. Estimates of its worth range between 130 and 160 billion dollars. In Spring of 2007, Attorney General Andrew Cuomo and DA David Soares announced twin investigations of possible conflicts of interest in fund investments under Comptroller Hevesi. In July, the NY Daily News reported that the probes were to be wrapped up “in weeks, not months”*. Hevesi's attorney said Cuomo and Soares were engaged in a smear campaign. In October, 2007, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) began an informal inquiry (sans subpoenas) into the fund investments. Newspaper stories continue to trickle out about the Hevesi aides, family members, and contributors who purportedly benefited from the relationship. An official report by somebody, someday, will indubitably be issued.
In the meantime, the concept of expanding oversight of the fund is being kicked around. X Governor Spitzer apparently favored a board appointed largely by himself. Comptroller Thomas Di Napoli thinks the problem may have been licked by the newly created internal office of inspector general.
Given Hevesi's forced exit, the Times-Union story about Senator Joe Bruno's trips elicited more excitement than it might have at another time. Republican Bruno has been in office for decades. As majority leader, his clout is legend. Term limits are a dream in New York. An FBI investigation into Bruno's consulting bidness and pension fund investment deals (involving union locals in the Albany area, not CRF) has dragged on for several years. Hope for removal from above is fading. The Times-Union story made anti-Bruno types do the hopeful dance. Alas. A different story was gathering force in the NYC tabs. About the role Governor Eliot Spitzer's office played in having state troopers provide reports on Bruno to the Times-Union. The New York Post, which leans to the right, was fustest with the mostest.
Speaking of leaning: in 2006, the Albany Times-Union endorsed Eliot Spitzer (then state attorney general) for governor. At Spitzer's inauguration ceremony the paper's editor, Rex Smith, performed in a choral group singing “This Little Light of Mine”. **
Choppergate quickly morphed into Troopergate. The possibility that the state's top exec misused police power and manipulated a friendly press became the dominant issue. Governor Spitzer claimed that if the op happened, his aides acted without his knowledge. Bruno and other Republicans scoffed. Even some Dems were skeptical. (By that time, Steamroller Spitz was becoming unpopular on both sides of the aisle.) The public didn't bite either. Attorney General Andrew Cuomo opened an investigation-- but never interviewed Eliot Spitzer. Cuomo issued a report in weeks not months, essentially saying that the State Police at the behest of the governor's top aides, had recreated reports on Senator Bruno's flights and fed them to the Times-Union. Cuomo stated that Eliot Spitzer's State Police superintendent, Preston Felton, had personally handled the production of documents, bypassing the chain of command that would normally handle a FOIL request. Cuomo also criticized Senator Bruno's flights. However, Cuomo found nothing illegal on either side (Bruno's flights were OK because he did a few public chores while on fund raising missions) just a whole lot of unethical stuff.
Spitzer true believers were upset Cuomo didn't deliver total absolution. They buzzed that Cuomo was tight with Majority Leader Bruno and hoped to run for governor next election. The investigation by DA David Soares made Spitz fans happier. Soares found the Spitzer aides' concern over travel abuse perfectly valid and reiterated that Governor Spitzer was unaware of their efforts to address those concerns. Soares also knocked pols who travel too much in state vehicles and agreed with Cuomo that nothing actually illegal was done by Senator Bruno. Unlike Cuomo, David Soares interviewed Governor Spitzer, but not under oath. Nor did Soares ask Spitzer if he'd seen the relevant State Police documents. When someone in the D.A.'s office leaked the Soares report to the Times-Union several weeks before it was officially released, Soares denied he'd already reached the conclusion he eventually reached.
Since David Soares is oft characterized as a fearless reformer (the Hevesi take-down being an example) his report took some of the starch out of Troopergate. State Inspector General Kristine Hamann, a Spitzer appointee and professional pal from his days as a prosecutor in Manhattan, had also taken a look-see. Her findings echoed Cuomo's. (Critics said Hamann's efforts were half-hearted and wired to Spitzer's office.) Other investigations lurched onward. One by the Senate Investigation Committee, an entity controlled by Republicans; another by the Public Integrity Commission, which was essentially created by Eliot Spitzer and headed by one of his major campaign contributors. Troopergate looked likely to slog on forever, mired in partisan wrangling and mind numbing legal maneuvers.
Then the sky split. A SARs report by Spitzer's bank had allegedly touched off a federal investigation that revealed the governor patronized hookers peddled by an international criminal ring who laundered payments through shell companies. Within a few days-- not weeks or months-- Spitzer was gone.
With Spitz off the throne, his character became better known. A number of fellow Democrats and journalists who covered Spitzer as gubernatorial candidate recalled instances where he'd acted like an irrational bully and demonstrated a taste for abuse of power. (If only such anecdotes had been shared earlier!) And without Spitzer's weight on it, Troopergate opened. Albany County DA David Soares issued a new report, based on a more recent interview conducted with Spitzer's aide Darren Dopp, one of the Troopergate troop. Dopp, under promise of immunity, spilled the beans. Surprise surprise-- Spitzer was neck deep in Troopergate. In one plotting session he raged that Bruno was “a piece of shit” and the State Police reports should be shoved “up his ass like a red hot poker”. Dopp replied “Sideways, boss?”
Given this bit of dialog how long would it have been before Governor Eliot Spitzer went totally Tony Montana and told someone to “say hello to my little friend”?
After Spitzer resigned, Lieutenant Governor David Paterson became governor. Immediately upon taking office, Paterson announced he'd cheated on his wife repeatedly and had dabbled with drugs in the '70s. Why kick off with the confession? According to an 03/31/08 New York Post story (State Police 'Smear Squad')
several lawmakers from both parties had warned Paterson that the State Police harbored “a renegade unit that has secretly compiled personal information on top New York officials”. Paterson suspected the unit had a dossier on him and acted fast to scotch any info dump. Another Paterson priority: replace State Police Superintendent Preston Felton. The Troopergate player who'd guided the production of Senator Joe Bruno's travel records.
The smear squad reportedly grew out of the security detail of former Governor George Pataki, with the head of the detail, Daniel Wiese, as prime mover. The smear squad continued to operate under Governor Eliot Spitzer, though Wiese was no longer with the State Police. However, he was still a force within the force and continued to act as Spitzer's unofficial security advisor. State Police Superintendent Preston Felton has been called Daniel Wiese's “puppet”***.
One of the many questions that have arisen about Spitzer's hooker habit is how the governor managed to consistently dodge his State Police security detail. Also at issue: whether Spitzer's habit was ever used against him. Particularly in relation to investigations he did-- or didn't-- conduct as attorney general.
Daniel Wiese goes way back with Pataki and Spitzer. In the 1980s, when Pataki was mayor of Peekskill in Westchester County, Wiese was a trooper in the area. He was also friendly with Eliot Spitzer in the 80's, when Spitz worked in the Manhattan District Attorney's office. As George Pataki moved up the ladder (assemblyman, state senator, governor) so did Dan Wiese (major, inspector, lieutenant colonel, colonel). In the late 90's, a federal grand jury in Brooklyn conducted an investigation into whether the 1994 Pataki gubernatorial campaign traded state paroles in exchange for contributions. The would-be parolees were violent felons; the contributions were made by their families, Korean business people in Queens. Dan Wiese allegedly pretended to be part of the law enforcement team working the case, in order to keep a handle on how it was going. When called to testify to the grand jury about interfering in the investigation, Wiese took the 5th. The probe resulted in convictions for several state parole board officials and a Pataki fund raiser, but no charges were filed against Dan Wiese.
Though protocol dictates that State Police not take the 5th, Wiese rolled merrily along.
In 2003, when Daniel Wiese retired from the State Police at the age of 48, Governor Pataki made him Inspector General of the New York State Power Authority. Wiese collected a yearly salary of $160,000, combined with roughly $70,000 in retirement bennies. New York's public authorities are quasi-public entities not government agencies. To paraphrase the New York Times (Fixing Albany; Good Places to Stash a Crony) the public authorities are where pols park their pals. As Inspector General of the Power Authority, Wiese got to hang with board members appointed by Pataki. If their stewardship ever required investigating, Wiese would be Danny-On-The-Spot.
In early April of this year, Governor David Paterson authorized Attorney General Andrew Cuomo to open a criminal probe of the New York State Police as regards the possible existence of a political smear squad. In the meantime, the State Power Authority has put Inspector General Dan Wiese on paid leave. The New York State Investigations Commission (a somewhat obscure entity headed by appointees of former Governor Pataki, Senator Joe Bruno, and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver) is investigating earlier investigations of Troopergate. Including those by former State Inspector General Kristine Hamann, Albany County D.A. David Soares, and the Public Integrity Commission created by Eliot Spitzer. New York taxpayers will be footing a humongous bill for all past, present, and future probes.
Still, there's a bright side. For New York's public servants and their attorneys, as well as office supply stores, corruption is a growth industry.
Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff
*Probe eyes Hevesi & deputy, Elizabeth Benjamin, Daily News, 07/09/08
**Singing For Spitz, New York Post, 01/04/07
***'No idea' on Bruno, Elizabeth Benjamin, Daily News, 08/20/07
Sources include but are not limited to:
Subpoenas Eyed For Spitz, Pataki, Fredric U. Dicker, New York Post, 04/14/08
Probes of Troopergate targeted for scrutiny by investigatory panel, Tom Precious, Buffalo News, 04/02/08
Cuomo told to probe state police, Bob Conner, Daily Gazette, 04/02/08
Investigation D, Office of the Albany County District Attorney, 03/28/08
Investigation into Bruno Broadens, Danny Hakim, New York Times, 02/04/08
Gov's Dirty-Tricks Colonel, Fredric U. Dicker, New York Post, 08/20/07
Report of Investigation into the Alleged Misuse of New York State Aircraft and the Resources of the New York State Police, State of New York Office of the Attorney General, 07/23/07
Hevesi's Sons and Aides Face Pension Fund Investigation, Danny Hakim and Mary Williams Walsh, New York Times, 07/15/07
A Dirty Cop at the Top: Pataki's Police Czar Penetrates Federal Probe of Gov's Campaign, Wayne Barrett, Village Voice, 01/20/04
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