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Mario Cuomo: The Governor Looks the Other Way

It’s time we started taking Mario Cuomo seriously.

He’s in his sixth year as governor, and mamma stories, as rich as they are, just won’t wash anymore — at least not as a substitute for governance. The four-year presidential tease of the Great Liberal Hope is over; an ethnic northeastern governor with a record is the nominee. The disenchanted of this state — the homeless, tenants, environmentalists, minorities, and reformers — can’t afford more schmaltzy personality profiles that devote a few buried paragraphs to Mario Cuomo’s government. It’s time to judge him for who he is and what he is doing, rather than forever anticipating what he may become.

This is the story of one test of Mario Cuomo’s government: its ethics. The governor has set a rather high moral standard for himself. He says he is inspired by no less than Saint Thomas More, who was executed for a principle. Son Andrew Cuomo, who at 30 is the only man Mario Cuomo actually listens to, has been attracting news attention for years about the ties between his booming law practice and his father’s governments. He practices in a Park Avenue office under a picture of Thomas More.

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More had a word or two for moral miscreants. “The air longs to blow noxious vapors against the wicked man. The sea longs to overwhelm him in its waves, the mountains to fall upon him, the earth to spilt open beneath him, hell to swallow him up after his headlong fall…” The wicked don’t drive Mario Cuomo quite as mad. Indeed, as the six episodes in this story demonstrate, he is gracious in the face of wrongdoing, even when committed by those with whom he has intimately shared his public trust. Loyalty is also a More virtue, but in these tales, Cuomo takes it to perverse lengths.

Documented here is a record of Cuomo indifference to the grave ethical errors of several high state officials, ranging from longtime Cuomo confidant Al Levine, who twice helped set up companies in his daughter’s name that indirectly did business with the state agency he worked for, to onetime Battery Park Authority chairman Robert Seavey, the Cuomo appointee who formed an upstate business partnership with a developer seeking designation on a Battery Park site.

This two-part series starts with the takeover of a seemingly mundane state agency, the Thruway Authority, by Levine and Hank Bersani, another Cuomo aide who’d been with him for a decade. It details their apparent attempts to turn the Authority into their own personal toll booth, and their determined support of a new Thruway exit seemingly designed to benefit a major Cuomo contributor. The final episode this week deals with the same Cuomo contributor’s attempt to secure a lucrative state lease. Three Cuomo officials — Seavey, OGS Commissioner John Egan, and State University Construction Fund chairman Sheldon Goldstein — play disturbing roles in the exit ramp or lease tales.

In each of the instances that will be described this week and next week, Mario Cuomo emerges as a man who empowers sleaze, watches in silence when news of it surfaces, and then, if pressed, publicly forgives it. Even Cuomo’s admirers have long found his tolerance for the tawdry as curious as it is consistent; it clashes with his studied monasticism. He has put himself on a contemplative hill, revering “the law” while sectors of his government slide toward the sewer.

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Under the glare of an aroused media after the first suicide attempt of Donald Manes, Ed Koch has had to answer for his government’s ties to and handling of the less-than-sublime. Well, Mario Cuomo has his own Victor Botnicks. His are less notorious, mostly because they and the governor who appointed and excused them have been protected by the Albany cocoon, operating daily 180 miles outside the range of city cameras.

While Cuomo will not discuss these issues, his secretary, Gerry Crotty, his counsel, Evan Davis, his son, Andrew, and other advisers will. They make some good points for him, and these arguments should not be a footnote to this story.

The Cuomo advisers point out that he took on the legislature in 1987 to fight for an ethics bill. He did, it got dirty, and the governor stood his ground. He vetoed a bill and forced them to make it better. It is a fact that the performances of assembly speaker Mel Miller and senate leader Warren Anderson have frequently made Mario Cuomo look saintly; but this story is not a course in comparative ethics.

Andrew describes a father who at a gut level would not broach a wayward turn. He has his own tales — about the governor dispatching him in a helicopter on a Saturday morning to a park retreat when they learned that two high officials had brought their wives there on a weekend lark at state expense. He recounts how the governor gathered lists of the state’s summer employees and compared them with the names on his own executive chamber payroll, looking for relatives who might be getting a well-placed perk.

Andrew, whose own virtues include the fact that the private HELP group he founded for the homeless may build more permanent housing than his dad’s government, tells these stories with conviction. In the end, though, Andrew’s anecdotes only make the governor’s, and his own, conduct in these tales even more inexplicable. They are apparently quite willing to resist their own finer instincts.

I asked Evan Davis three times to name a single personnel action by the governor that sent a message that he will not tolerate unethical conduct, even if that conduct does not lead to a criminal indictment. Davis kept dodging the question. The governor missed the essence of More — who spit in a king’s eye rather than acknowledge his illicit marriage, even though the king was his friend. Sometimes a moralist has to be mean.

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Al Levine’s Thruway Dowry

When Mario Cuomo was appointed secretary of state by Governor Carey and assumed his first public office in 1975, he began a 12-year relationship with a savvy former Air Force major who’d already been working at state for years, Al Levine. Except for a brief stint during the second Carey term, when Levine was employed by another state agency, he would work directly for Cuomo until his abrupt resignation as Thruway director last November.

Levine was so close to Cuomo that during the dark days of 1981, when Cuomo was lieutenant governor and his chief of staff was arrested for stealing the paychecks of fictitious employees, he asked Levine to assume the top staff job. Levine continued to run Cuomo’s office throughout the gubernatorial campaign of 1982, and he and his wife handled the computerized mailings to campaign donors out Levine’s suburban home. When the new governor took office in 1983, Al Levine, a high school graduate who’d worked his way up the military ranks as an enlisted man, was given the title of administrative director of the executive chamber, making him a centerpiece of the new power structure on the second floor of the Capitol building.

In March 1984, Cuomo made Levine executive director of the Thruway Authority, a traditional patronage haven. Levine came into the Authority shortly after a new Cuomo chairman, Hank Bersani, who also had been with Cuomo since the start of the governor’s public career.

Neither Levine nor Bersani had transportation, engineering, or even top-level managerial backgrounds. But the two did share a similar, seedy élan: the white-haired, deal-talking Bersani, who’d risen from the street politics of grimy Syracuse, and the burly, tattooed Levine, who’d ingratiated himself with the Cuomo clan, particularly the governor’s wife, Matilda, over the years. On one wall in his Thruway headquarters office Levine hung a framed copy of the governor’s speech at the 1984 Democratic convention. On the other wall he displayed half a dozen photos of his favorite trotters.

Though ensconced after 1984 at his own public agency for the first time, Levine assiduously maintained his ties to the state’s first family. That year he set up the Executive Mansion Preservation Society, a private, prestigious corporation charged with raising funds to refurbish the Albany mansion that the Cuomos rarely left. Levine met frequently with Matilda Cuomo to plan the renovations, and managed the $850,000 collected from wealthy donors like Harry Helmsley ($25,000). He used the Thruway Authority’s accounting firm to manage the books and his own lawyers to incorporate and represent the society.

When Thruway chairman Bersani had to resign suddenly in June 1987 — provoked by revelations about his criminal past — Cuomo once again turned to Levine, describing him publicly as “a trusted old friend” and asking him to take Bersani’s title while retaining his own. The combination would have made Levine the first simultaneous chairman and director of the Authority. But six days after Bersani’s resignation, a letter signed “Concerned thruway employees” was delivered to key senate Republicans. The letter leveled detailed charges about Levine’s involvement in a computer services firm that provided software to engineering companies under contract with the Thruway Authority.

As soon as the governor’s office formally submitted Levine’s nomination to the senate in mid-June, Gerry Crotty, then the governor’s counsel, got a copy of the anonymous note from a legislative source, and immediately passed it on to Cuomo’s in-house inspector general, Joe Spinelli, who began an investigation. Levine withdrew his nomination a few days later, labeling the charges in the anonymous letter “totally unfounded.”

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The next day Cuomo urged the anonymous tipster to come forward, promising his “personal protection.” He also warned that the issue should not be blown out of proportion. “Let’s not elaborate this to unreality,” he said. The IG’s investigators, however, went to the Authority immediately and found willing witnesses — including the two top Carey holdovers there, deputy director James Martin and counsel Bob Farrell, both of whom were at odds with Levine and had been identified by insiders as possible authors of the letter.

Levine took sick leave for a week while the charges exploded around him, mostly in upstate newspapers, but the decision was made to stick with him. Cuomo told reporters: “I choose to believe that he is a man of the highest quality and I have seen no evidence that proves otherwise. I know him. I love him. He’s a good fellow. The process will work and it will prove he did nothing illegal or unethical.”

But while Levine remained director, Cuomo had to come up with another candidate for chairman. Former Power Authority chairman John Dyson turned the offer down when he couldn’t get assurances from Cuomo that he could replace Levine with his own director. “I knew that Al Levine had to go,” Dyson said later. “I had heard he might have ethical problems,” referring to a period before news of the IG probe broke.

Cuomo then turned to Bill Hennessy, the former Carey transportation commissioner and ex-state Democratic Party chief. Hennessy’s first act as Thruway chairman was to fire Martin and Farrell. Levine remained in charge for months, while the suspected whistleblowers were already out the door.

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Betasoft Bombshells

Looking over IG Joe Spinelli’s shoulder virtually from the inception, and questioning many of the same people approached by him, was the State Investigation Commission (SIC), the quasi-independent, anticorruption irritant that had dogged the Cuomo administration on many ethical cases in recent years. Also a recipient of the anonymous letter, the SIC took a temporary back seat to Spinelli, but the inevitability of its eventual report had to be a prod, pushing the IG probe. In the end, Spinelli came up with hard evidence of Levine’s misconduct, then laid the details of it out in a report bereft of meaningful conclusions.

In October, the report was referred to two state prosecutors, but Spinelli carefully told reporters: “This referral does not represent a finding with regard to possible violations of the law.”

Indeed, Spinelli’s written recommendation was that a prosecutor “review” the allegations “to determine if there is a basis to commence criminal proceedings” — a curious conclusion since that was ostensibly the purpose of his own probe. The highlights of Spinelli’s factual findings were:

● After determining that the Authority needed precisely the sort of software Betasoft would eventually offer, Levine set up the company and put together a small group of investors and directors, including his daughter Michelle, which met 30 times in Levine’s home during the two-year life of the firm. The four initial partners, in addition to Levine’s daughter, an employee of the state Parks Department, were also state employees long tied to Levine — two Thruway staffers, the computer chief in the governor’s office, and the deputy general manager of the State University Construction Fund. Levine’s wife incorporated the firm and opened its checking account, and Levine personally attended all its organizational and board meetings, offering advice and acquainting himself with all of the company’s business activities.

● Betasoft’s business was almost entirely based on the solicitation of engineering firms under contract or seeking contracts with the Thruway Authority. Even after Thruway staffer Cynthia Bloom became Betasoft’s chief operating officer, she remained at the Authority, reporting only to Levine and contacting potential Betasoft customers from Thruway offices even though the customers were Thruway contractors. According to Bloom, Levine even gave her computerized lists of Thruway consultants to solicit. In three instances he brokered discussions between Thruway contractors and Betasoft, playing a central role in the company’s first sale. Though 30 per cent of the Authority’s consultant payments went to the four engineering companies that did business with Betasoft, Levine, who single-handedly selected the consultants for the Authority, talked of going to work for Betasoft when he left state government.

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The governor refused to comment on the findings, but his new Authority chairman Hennessy concluded: “There’s no criminality of any kind even inferred here.” Hennessy said Levin was “hurt” by the Betasoft controversy, “but he’s fine. He has no misgivings about his role in it and he knows perfectly well this will have to play itself out.” Levine’s criminal attorney, Richard Meyers, said Levine had viewed his participation in Betasoft as a “good idea for his child.” In what some saw as a reference to Mario Cuomo’s role in setting up the Manhattan law firm that employs his son, Andrew, and represents clients that do business with the state, Meyers said: “Presidents and governors do it.”

The 59-year-old Levine was on sick leave when the report was released, and had already quietly submitted his retirement papers. He was awarded a discretionary disability pension, meaning that his retirement was technically not due to the findings of the Spinelli report, but to a heart condition. Combined with his federal pension, Levine began collecting $44,480 a year in benefits.

The only disciplinary action to result from Spinelli’s findings involved George Kash, a Levine protégé and $58,000-a-year data processing supervisor in the governor’s office. A shareholder and active director in Betasoft, Kash was orally reprimanded by Cuomo aide Hank Dullea for not seeking clearance from the governor’s counsel about “the appropriateness of his outside business activity.” Though the governor’s press office once claimed that Kash would also be transferred to another state agency, he still runs Cuomo’s computers.

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The SIC took another five months before releasing its own report, which drew the conclusions Spinelli had hesitated to make. “The Commission has concluded,” said the April 1988 report, “that Levine crossed this line between unethical and criminal conduct,” suggesting that upstate federal prosecutor Fred Scullin “consider the merits and feasibility of a prosecution for extortion.” The unequivocal SIC judgment was that Levine’s “conduct falls within the Hobbs Act definition of extortion,” a reference to the federal criminal statute.

The Commission was also tough on Levine’s state-employed partners, blasting Kash because he knew that the company was owned by Thruway employees, yet sold software to Thruway consultants, and criticizing the Thruway employees for “violating the Code of Ethics” and “conducting Betasoft work during Thruway work hours.” But the report was harshest in its description of Jay Handwerger, the counsel and number-two man at the State University Construction Fund. Though the SIC assailed his “poor judgment” in “overlooking the ethical issues,” Handwerger wasn’t even admonished. The governor’s counsel, Evan Davis, says that Cuomo, who appoints the Fund’s board, is powerless to act.

All the governor would say about the SIC findings was that they were “consistent” with Spinelli’s. He expressly rejected the legislative recommendations made by the commission concerning conflicts of interest, saying that the changes in law sought could be adopted by regulation. John Baniak, a Levine protégé, was inserted in his place at the helm of the mansion preservation society, and as the new number-two man on the staff of the Thruway Authority.

The SIC decision to refer the case to the feds was more likely to lead to a prosecution than the governor’s earlier decision to send Spinelli’s report to the office of Albany D.A. Sol Greenberg — a burial ground for public corruption cases. Even though Greenberg had not questioned a single witness named in Spinelli’s report, he had already publicly dismissed the possibility of any criminal case against Levine.

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Second Time Around

Almost as a footnote to its report, the SIC uncovered an early warning of Levine’s propensity for this sort of conflict of interest. The Commission found that Betasoft was the second time Levine had helped set up a company to do indirect business with the state agency he worked for, and the second time he’d used his daughter as a shareholder.

The first time was in 1980, when Levine was with the state’s student financial aid agency, the Higher Education Services Corporation (HESC), working with another protégé, HESC’s executive vice-president, Michael Cruskie, a computer whiz with a straight-arrow reputation.

The SIC reported that Cruskie, Levine, who was HESC’s director of system support development, and three other top officials of HESC combined to form Charter Account Systems Inc. expressly to sell computer services to the same lending institutions that were participating in HESC’s loan programs. Indeed, one service marketed by Charter to the banks, sometimes by Cruskie, was the administration of their student-loan portfolios, including the filing of reports with HESC. While Cruskie and the others invested directly, Levine’s stock was held by the then 19-year-old Michelle.

What the SIC did not examine was whether Levine’s role in this blatant conflict was known within the governor’s inner circle for years and ignored. In fact, it was, and the high-level indifference to Levine’s prior moral lapse may have been one of the factors that led him to believe he could get away with Betasoft.

The Cruskie/Levine affair was extensively described in a December 1981 memo by HESC counsel Gilbert Harwood, who concluded that the three Charter partners then still with HESC had “failed to meet” the ethical standards of the Public Officers Law. Harwood also noted that Levine had left HESC and had pulled out of the company when asked to ante up $7,500 on top of the initial $2,500 investment. “Insofar as Al Levine is concerned,” Harwood wrote, “inasmuch as he’s no longer with HESC, the issue as to him is moot.” As a result of the Harwood memo, Cruskie was required to sever his ties to Charter, and he claimed in a March 1982 letter that he was complying with that directive. Neither HESC nor Cuomo will answer questions about whether Levine’s involvement in Charter was known within the Cuomo inner circle at the time it surfaced in late 1981, when Levine was simultaneously taking over the management of Cuomo’s lieutenant governor’s office.

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On Levine’s recommendation, Cruskie was appointed Cuomo’s deputy commissioner of the Division of Criminal Justice Services in March 1983 (three months later Michelle Levine went to work for him as a project assistant). In the spring of 1984, he had to file his first financial disclosure report with the state’s Board of Public Disclosure, and the board’s counsel, Bennett Leibman, noticed that Cruskie had disclosed his membership on the Charter board, an apparent violation of a Cuomo order barring such corporate connections. Leibman wrote a memo to two disclosure board members — Michael Delgiudice, the governor’s secretary, and Gerry Crotty, his counsel — calling the Cruskie revelation to their attention. They instructed him to look further.

Leibman retrieved the Harwood memo and noticed Al Levine’s involvement. He wrote another note to Delgiudice and Crotty, reviewing the findings regarding Cruskie and mentioning Levine’s role. Both recall learning of Cruskie’s and Levine’s involvement, but add that they “don’t think” they told the governor. All they did was instruct Cruskie to step down from the Charter board, an automatic requirement under the governor’s regulations. Though Crotty conceded that Cruskie’s reported activities “bothered” him, no further action was taken against Cruskie.

When the Charter issue resurfaced as part of the SIC’s probe of Betasoft, Cruskie tried desperately to cover up the fact that he had never cut his ties to the company as required in 1982, even “fabricating” a stock certificate and lying before the Commission, according to the report. A perjury and obstruction of justice case against him has been referred to prosecutors. Earlier this year Cruskie suddenly resigned from Criminal Justice, and went to work at Charter.

Mario Cuomo has yet to make a single public comment about any of the HESC or Thruway conduct, or amend the last sweeping public endorsement he made of his old friend Levine. Neither has the newly installed leadership at the Thruway Authority passed a resolution or issued a statement acknowledging any wrongdoing and pointing toward a new way of doing business. State officials have made no policy or personnel changes directly attributed to either Levine affair.

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Loyalty for a Bagman

When Lee Alexander was elected mayor of Syracuse in 1969, Hank Bersani, the president of Syracuse Canada Dry and longtime Democratic kingmaker, was the electoral engineer. A few months later, shortly after Alexander began 16 consecutive years as mayor, Bersani, already in his 10th year as treasurer of the county party, started making kickback collections for Alexander from city contractors.

Appointed by Alexander to the Planning Commission, Bersani’s job was to make periodic deliveries of cash payoffs to Alexander — usually set at 10 per cent of the value of a city contract. When Bersani would arrive at City Hall for a private visit with the mayor, Alexander would open the top left-hand drawer of his desk and Bersani would drop the envelope into the drawer without saying a word. If Alexander got confused about who the cash was from, Bersani would write the name on one of the lift-up pads kids play with, and then erase the name with a yank of his wrist.

Before Alexander was fully indicted, this onetime president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors would collect millions in bribes, burying them as nearby as in a floor safe built under his laundry room, and as faraway as Panamanian bank accounts.

After fundraising for Alexander’s unsuccessful run for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate in 1974, Bersani pulled back from the day-to-day tribulations of being an Alexander bagman, and went to work for Hugh Carey’s new secretary of state, Mario Cuomo. He would later claim he left because Alexander got too greedy, escalating his demands; but Alexander, backed by Bersani’s replacement as a bagman and a contractor, would later say Bersani was dropped because Alexander suspected him of shorting him on a $9,000 bribe. In any event, Bersani introduced his open-palm substitute — a business partner — to contractors at meetings in his bottling plant, and gradually drifted out of the kickback scheme.

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No one ever figured out just what Bersani’s public responsibilities were as a community affairs coordinator in Cuomo’s office, but he still did campaign fundraising and organizing in the Syracuse area for local and statewide campaigns, including Cuomo’s in 1978 and 1982. Eventually, his cousin Gene Bersani, a Syracuse lawyer whose firm did millions in city business and kicked back hundreds of thousands for it, also became an Alexander bagman. For years, Hank Bersani’s paychecks came from whatever office Cuomo held — switching from the secretary of state job to the lieutenant governor’s staff, and finally to the governor’s office, always holding the title of Cuomo’s area representative in Syracuse. He had long ago given up his troubled soda business and had been dabbling in local real estate, getting headlines when he stiffed city government for $50,000 in back property taxes. His 1984 appointment, at age 63, to head Cuomo’s Thruway Authority was a backroom toll-taker’s ultimate dream.

But a year after Bersani began his nine-year term at the authority, U.S. attorney Fred Scullin began the grand jury probe of Alexander. Finally, in August 1986, the FBI raided Alexander’s home, as well as the home of Bersani’s bagman successor, seizing records that detailed the scope of the extortion scheme. By September, even Bersani’s cousin was a cooperating witness. Though the writing was on the wall, Hank Bersani held out. Since his bag operations were supposedly more than 10 years old, the statute of limitations might have run on his crimes, unless he was charged under the RICO statutes. All the time he bartered with the government, Bersani remained Cuomo’s man at the authority, even though prosecutors soon discovered he had already brought some of the Alexander predators into a Thruway deal.

In early 1985 Bersani moved to declare a three-acre parcel owned by the authority, located just outside of Syracuse, to be surplus property. Thruway staff was mystified because the property was used to stockpile supplies and change authority truck tires. But Bersani pushed for an immediate sale of the property, staging an auction a month after the property was offered for sale and getting only one bid. The buyer, who paid the authority’s minimum price of $260,000, was a Syracuse developer who’d gotten $1.5 million in no-bid construction contracts from Alexander and had become a target of the grand jury probe.

Four months after Bersani signed over the deed, the developer sold the property to a national motel chain at a $400,000 profit. The developer used two brokers on the deal — Gene Bersani and an Alexander appointee on the city’s zoning board — and paid them $66,000. Federal investigators are still examining this deal.

The prosecutors, and the FBI, kept the governor’s office broadly informed about the case against Hank Bersani. While the FBI described Bersani’s bag operations in the conversations with state officials and predicted Bersani would be indicted, Scullin was more sanguine. Scullin says he told the state that Bersani was “a concern to us,” and that his office was “looking at certain things” involving Bersani very closely. Scullin says he gave state officials no advice about whether or not they should dump the Thruway chief, adding that he told them to “proceed as they normally do.”

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Bersani Hangs On

Mario Cuomo and his advisers decided that the sketchy information they were getting — combined with the uncertainty of Bersani’s indictment — justified retaining him until the picture cleared. One predictable lobbyist for this posture was Bersani himself, whose name was by then popping up in upstate news stories about the Alexander probe. He roamed the corridors of the second floor, assuring the governor’s staff that he believed he could emerge from the case unscathed. Though Scullin now says Cuomo’s office had no basis to take action against Bersani during this period, he did remain in a key public position for a year after the first revelations about his kickback activities, even though there were indications that he was engaged in suspicious land deals at the authority.

Scullin eventually sent an indictment of Bersani to Washington without a recommendation that it be approved. “I dropped it in their lap,” he says. Washington rejected a RICO conspiracy count, so Scullin gave Bersani limited immunity, meaning he couldn’t be charged for any crimes he testified about, but could still be nailed in the second phase of the probe that is still ongoing. Only when the Alexander indictment was imminent did Bersani finally resign.

Bersani’s June 1987 resignation was attributed in news stories to the fact that he had been drawn into the Alexander probe. All the governor’s office would say was that he’d quit for “personal reasons,” insisting that his departure had “nothing to do with the activities of the Thruway Authority.” But then, when Bersani was named as Alexander’s “bagman” in the July indictment, the mum Cuomo finally had to answer questions at a press conference. He called Bersani “a very, very fine individual who gave us public service” and insisted, “I know nothing but good things about him.”

When a reporter said that Bersani had been implicated in the Alexander case, a combative Cuomo challenged him: “He was not implicated. I wish you would not say that. He was not named in the indictment. I hope you don’t report that. Let’s get something clear. He was not named. He was not accused. He is not charged. Maybe he will be. I don’t know.” This was precisely the distinction Bersani had been making for months. But, in fact, though he hadn’t been indicted, he was named in the Alexander indictment and called a bagman.

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The Bersani issue largely disappeared until March 1988, when the Syracuse Herald American sent Cuomo copies of Bersani’s grand jury testimony, released by prosecutors as part of a presentencing memo about Alexander, who had pleaded guilty. The Herald American wanted Cuomo to examine the testimony to see if it warranted a state investigation of Bersani’s Thruway dealings, especially after the revelations that the owner of one of the companies that paid Alexander bribes was also a Thruway contractor who’d used Al Levine’s software company. A Cuomo press spokesman said he was too busy to read the testimony, and wouldn’t react to it.

Then, on the heels of this stubborn defense of Bersani, the governor named a new Thruway chairman with his own ethical baggage. Bersani’s replacement, Bill Hennessy, a longtime Albany pol, had been running his own consultant business since 1985, earning most of his money lobbying the state transportation department he’d once headed. When Hennessy took the authority job, he and the governor’s office issued an unusual statement, announcing that Hennessy would remain a 90 per cent partner in his lobbying firm, and the firm would still be permitted to lobby state agencies. Hennessy agreed, however, not to share in the profits the firm makes from its lobbying activities. (The $25,000-a-year part-time chairman, contacted by the Voice at his lobbying firm, said that his only outside earnings now are from the real estate appraisal end of his business and that he “hopes” he will be able to leave the authority soon and return to full-time lobbying activity. He acknowledged that other than a listing of his firm’s lobbying clients with the authority, the policing of this arrangement has been left to him.)

One current Hennessy client, on a $30,000-a-year retainer, is Unisys, the defense contractor whose New York lobbying operations are a focus of the Pentagon probes. The Hennessy firm began representing the company in 1987 and reported lobbying the executive chamber, the division of the budget, the comptroller, and the Office of General Services about the state’s procurement regulations concerning the purchase of information systems. Hennessy chose a former transportation department deputy, John Shafer, to replace Levine. Hennessy had appointed Shafer to his earlier transportation post, had subsequently lobbied him on behalf of private clients, and had even received a $13,000 consultant contract from Shafer.

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Highway to Heaven

In January 1984, when Mario Cuomo appointed Hank Bersani to the Thruway Authority, he also made one other Thruway announcement. In his State of the State address that month, the governor declared: “We will also explore a number of highway improvements elsewhere in the state that may have significant economic development value — for example, the construction of a new thruway interchange near Sterling Forest.”

It was an unusual statement for several reasons. The top management of the Thruway Authority had no idea it was coming, neither did the local Democratic assemblywoman who was trying to attract support for such a ramp. New exits off the thruway rarely occur. None have ever been built as a trigger to development; transportation and traffic needs have dictated thruway policy. In addition, an exit at Sterling Forest — the 30-mile tract of Orange County private timberland only an hour from the city — had been rejected repeatedly when raised in the 1960s and 1970s because of traffic studies that demonstrated it wasn’t warranted.

The other unusual feature of the Cuomo announcement was its specificity, not at all characteristic of the broad sweep of so grand a speech. Neither before nor since has the governor, the authority, or anyone else surveyed the 400 miles of thruway to determine where it might make sense to open exits for economic development reasons. Instead, the only consequence of the Cuomo declaration was that the new team at the authority — Bersani and Levine — made the Sterling Forest interchange a top priority.

Levine pushed the interchange relentlessly despite the opposition of his own planners and those in the Transportation Department. One top deputy recalls that when he raised numerous technical problems with the exit, Levine stopped making rational arguments and said simply, “This is heavy-duty political stuff.” Misrepresenting a neutral report on the exit as if it were an endorsement, the governor announced in June 1985 the submission of an end-of-the-session bill to authorize up to $7 million to build it. That July, Cuomo went to the Orange County Fair to sign the bill with great fanfare, despite the emergence of environmental issues that would’ve stalled a strip-miner.

The environmental questions began with the fact that the state identified the Sterling Forest tract, owned by the Home Group Insurance Company, as the prime potential beneficiary of the interchange, suggesting that several corporate research facilities be built on the timberlands, as well as a conference center and hotel. But at the same time, New Jersey’s and New York’s environmental agencies were contemplating acquiring portions of the tract, which lies in both states, for conservation and outdoor recreation purposes. So, in addition to the howls of environmentalists, the interchange managed to earn the enmity of the environmental agencies of both states.

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New Jersey was in a rage because the interchange-connected development of the timberlands would destroy its nearby reservoirs, the source of water for two million people. Even the New York environmental agency wrote repeated letters questioning the premises of the project, ultimately concluding that there was “little need for it other than speculative purposes,” and warning that the department “may be unable to make a positive finding” in favor of the exit.

Even as these issues publicly surfaced, Levine was quoted as insisting that the project was still one of the governor’s top priorities. It also attracted the leeches at the Cuomo Thruway Authority. The Authority awarded a no-bid design contract for the interchange to a consultant represented by a law firm that once included Gene Bersani and still did joint legal work with him. The consultant was then approached by Levine, who suggested they use Betasoft to handle their computer services.

One active developer in the region is Shelly Goldstein, a tough-talking, Rockland County-based owner of luxury condos and federally subsidized apartment complexes. Goldstein, who has personally given $49,000 to Cuomo campaigns, was one of the governor’s largest individuals donors when he was scratching for money in the struggle against Ed Koch in 1982.

At that time, Goldstein was also the most important client of the small Manhattan law firm that Cuomo’s longtime aide Jerry Weiss had set up, at Cuomo’s request, as a possible nesting place should Cuomo lose the gubernatorial race. Weiss also became a Goldstein partner in a major real estate deal, and candidate Cuomo went out to a Rockland golf outing hosted by Goldstein to raise contributions for the campaign. Over the years Cuomo became friendly with the flashy 59-year-old Goldstein, who drives a new silver Mercedes convertible, dresses “Miami Beach,” and, at one point, dyed his hair jet black.

Once Cuomo became governor, he appointed Goldstein to the chairmanship of the State University Construction Fund. Goldstein’s son Jeffrey began getting contracts to manage state housing projects. Neither Goldstein nor the governor will answer questions about whether they ever discussed the interchange; Weiss told the Voice he never had anything to do with the project.

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Goldstein’s Land Grab

What’s clear is that Shelly Goldstein has owned property in Orange County that would benefit from the interchange for 20 years, and that he began to develop a 30-store shopping mall on a 28-acre site in the Town of Chester shortly after the new exit was announced. Goldstein also bought a 160-acre site owned by the International Nickel Corporation (INCO) and his own environmental impact statement found that the development of this site would be enhanced by the interchange. Most importantly, Goldstein submitted a $35 million bid in an unsuccessful attempt to acquire the Sterling Forest tract itself, principally for the same sort of luxury housing he planned to build on the INCO site.

By the time Goldstein bid on the Sterling Forest property in 1986, however, he was no longer represented by Weiss, who’d abruptly quit the practice of law in late 1984. Andrew Cuomo, who had worked summers at the Weiss firm while in law school and joined as a full partner in 1985 at age 26, and his then girlfriend, partner Lucille Falcone, had taken over the banking and real estate interests of Shelly Goldstein. The relationships that developed were so close that Goldstein placed Andrew Cuomo on the board of a Union City, New Jersey bank as part of a settlement that permitted the bank’s management to avoid a Goldstein takeover attempt, and did the same for Falcone at the Savings Bank of Rockland, where Goldstein is a major shareholder.

At one point in 1986, the Sterling Forest acquisition was clearly the biggest deal in Andrew Cuomo’s life. He was not merely representing Goldstein, as he did on two Rockland co-op conversion plans filed with the state attorney general’s office; Cuomo was scheduled to get both legal and real estate brokerage fees on the sale, and Goldstein was going to allow him to retroactively invest those fees as a partner in the purchase.

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Goldstein and Cuomo, who ran his father’s two gubernatorial campaigns and was a special assistant to the governor during the early days of the administration, had another partner in the venture with powerful state ties — Bob Seavey, chairman of the state’s Battery Park City Authority. Seavey, 61, a developer of subsidized housing projects in the city, had been appointed by Cuomo in 1984 as the part-time head of the Battery Park board. Seavey’s son Avery later became a partner in the Cuomo firm, and Seavey and his wife joined it in 1986 — not as partners but as counsels to it. Lucille Falcone and the senior Seavey, a rumpled and grandfatherly figure, now head the firm’s booming real estate department.

A millionaire with homes in the Hamptons and Williamstown, Massachusetts, Seavey allowed one of his state- and city-subsidized projects — a luxurious complex located at 401 Second Avenue, built long before the Cuomo era — to become home for the singles wing of the Cuomo network, including at one point everyone from Falcone to Cuomo’s daughter Maria to the daughters of Cuomo friend Jimmy Breslin. The failure of many of Seavey’s tenants to meet the income requirements of the subsidy program was of little apparent concern to anyone.

Seavey’s connections to the Sterling Forest deal with Goldstein were somewhat awkward. Seavey’s Battery Park board was then in the middle of selecting a developer for its next phase of state-subsidized luxury housing. One of the finalists was Shelly Goldstein. In addition, Seavey was helping to raise financing for his and Goldstein’s Sterling Forest bid. Sometime between May and October, several developers with Battery Park City sites, including the Milsteins, some of the principals of Dic Underhill, and Related Housing, were asked to invest in the project and told that Seavey was a partner in it. Seavey’s board had acted on leases for some of these same developers, all of whom eventually declined to invest. But then, Seavey has made a career of living on just this sort of edge.

Seavey first became a focus of media attention in the mid-’60s when the State Investigation Commission criticized him for wearing two hats — representing both the cooperators in Mitchell Lama co-ops and the builder. The SIC also focused on Seavey’s relationship with Tammany Hall leader Ray Jones, the first black county leader in New York and Seavey’s number-one client. Seavey’s financial records were subpoenaed, revealing a pattern of four $5,000 payments from one Harlem housing company to Seavey, each of which was followed by huge withdrawals from Seavey’s account.

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Later a Seavey corporation and his partner were indicted in Brooklyn on charges of bilking the Mitchell Lama project at Cadman Plaza; but, after waiving a jury trial, they were acquitted by then Supreme Court judge Vito Titone. In the late ’70s Seavey was also eyed in the city’s day-care lease scandal and the comptroller wound up withholding $158,000 in rental payments to him because of suspicious overcharges.

In August 1986, just as Seavey, Goldstein, and Andrew Cuomo were getting together their bid for Sterling Forest, the Voice and Mike Oreskes, a reporter for The New York Times, were preparing news stories about the curious clients attracted to Andrew Cuomo’s small young law firm. Both Seavey and Goldstein became the focus of reporters’ questions. In a letter addressed to Mario Cuomo, dated August 26, the day before both stories appeared, Seavey referred to a conversation he’d had with the governor the night before and announced he would be resigning from the Battery Park board, effective five days later.

In an extraordinary sequence of events, Goldstein’s partner wrote a letter to Battery Park two days after Seavey’ resignation from the authority, withdrawing his proposal for Battery Park designation. The letter noted that Goldstein’s organization, the Lynmark Group, had decided to “stay within our geographic area,” adding that it has “entered into negotiations on one of the largest parcels in that area,” an obvious reference to the Sterling Forest deal. A month later, however, Home Group Insurance Company rejected the Seavey/Goldstein offer.

Seavey and Goldstein got so friendly during the course of this deal that Goldstein installed Seavey on the same Bank of Rockland board as Falcone, and bought a condo in the Sovereign, a luxury building at 425 East 58th Street where Seavey has lived for years. Andrew Cuomo, too, continued to work closely with Goldstein, joining him in a Florida bank takeover bid that blew up in ugly court cases and uglier headlines last year. While Cuomo managed a successful settlement of the Florida situation, he says he was disturbed enough by Goldstein’s performance in this and other cases that he “has not talked to him for six or seven months.” Cuomo says Goldstein “threatened to kill” the bank’s resistant owners.

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Andrew’s Answer

In a wide-ranging defense of the events surrounding the interchange, Andrew Cuomo contended that there was no conflict because Goldstein was a Rockland developer who did not enter the Orange County market until after the interchange was approved. In fact, Goldstein owned substantial property in two Orange County towns — Chester and Woodbury — and started discussing the development of a mall with Chester officials in 1985. Cuomo, who says he knows nothing about these properties, handled Goldstein’s purchase of a third Orange parcel, the INCO site, and maintains that Goldstein’s option on this site was obtained after the passage in July 1985 of the bill authorizing the interchange. Neither Cuomo nor INCO officials, however, will say precisely when that option was signed or show the Voice a copy. INCO’s president, Sam Goldberg, testifying in a local zoning case, refused to get specific about the timing of Goldstein’s initial interest, though he did concede that the property was put up for sale within days of the 1984 Cuomo speech.

Cuomo’s argument also ignores Goldstein’s longtime dominance as a developer in neighboring Rockland, even though the governor’s memo on the interchange bill said that the exit would “enhance significantly the economic development of Orange and Rockland Counties.” Vincent Monte, the Democratic county leader in Rockland and a private realtor who’s handled title insurance for Goldstein, told the Voice that Goldstein “had always intended — long before the governor’s speech — to expand his Rockland condo development into Orange County.”

Finally, Cuomo sweeps aside the importance of the on-again, off-again nature of the governmental approval process, particularly with a project that has so many downsides and roadblocks. Goldstein, Seavey, and Cuomo could afford to speculate on the likelihood of future state actions that might impact on the interchange with a little more certainty than the next guy. If the Andrew Cuomo group had actually become the owners of this tract in 1986, the state would then have been put in the difficult position of conducting a highly controversial environmental impact review to justify the construction of a virtual driveway into the governor’s son’s land.

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Cuomo’s defense of Seavey, who would not comment, is that if any of the Battery Park developers had joined the Sterling Forest bid, “I wouldn’t have gone ahead with the deal, and I don’t think Bob would have either,” which makes it even stranger that Seavey asked them. Cuomo stresses Goldstein’s withdrawal from Battery Park and Seavey’s resignation as acts that minimized the “appearance of conflict,” adding that “any solicitation” Seavey “may have done” of BPC principals “may have happened” after his resignation. “Once all the pieces were put together on a deal” for Sterling Forest, if the offer had been accepted, he and the others would’ve analyzed the package and, if there was a conflict, “we wouldn’t have gone ahead with it.”

A year after the Goldstein bid was rejected, the exit project was suspended. By then the project was awash in opposition elicited during the environmental process and buffeted by a Times story a few months earlier that explored some of the conflict issues. New Thruway Authority director John Shafer, who had shepherded the interchange through the Department of Transportation when he was there, issued a terse and inexplicable explanation for the suspension. He cited concerns that the project would be “inconsistent” with “the possibility of state land acquisition or land-use planning for park and other environmental purposes in the vicinity.” That problem had been apparent from the inception of the project three years earlier.

Various top Cuomo officials have made contradictory claims to the Voice about how it died. Hennessy says he decided to stop it without ever talking to the governor who announced it. Cuomo’s counsel Evan Davis says it was killed “on the advice of condemnation lawyers from the attorney general’s office.” A spokesman for the attorney general says a representative from that office attended a top-level 1987 meeting on the second floor about the interchange but made no recommendation of any sort. Supposed decisionmaker Hennessy knows nothing about this crucial meeting. The demise of the ramp is as mysterious as its origins, and these conflicting recollections appear to conceal the hand of the one man with the power to both create and kill the project, Mario Cuomo.

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Lease Lust

Around the same time in 1984 that the governor first announced the Sterling Forest interchange, his largest campaign contributor, Shelly Goldstein, was getting himself involved in another controversial state project. He began discussing a partnership arrangement with Rockland County builder Harry Partridge, who had bought the old police property building at 400 Broome Street in Little Italy. Partridge had snared a multi-million-dollar state lease for the dilapidated and abandoned building in the dying days of the Carey administration, and when Cuomo became governor, he was going broke trying to renovate it.

Goldstein’s interest in the building would ultimately become a titillating feature of a SIC investigation that raised questions about his own conduct, as well as Andrew Cuomo’s and that of another top state official, General Services Commissioner John Egan.

The criminal focus of the Broome Street saga was on the relationship between Partridge and Joe Siggia, a middle-level OGS director who picked sites and helped negotiate leases for the move-out of thousands of state workers from the World Trade Center. Siggia retired from OGS and went to work for Partridge shortly after delivering the lease to him, just as he did for two other landlords who won state leases in the move-out sweepstakes. Manhattan D.A. Robert Morgenthau eventually indicted both Siggia and Partridge on bribery charges but convicted them only of lying under oath at the SIC about whether or not they’d discussed Siggia’s future employment while Siggia was still in his state job. A judge dismissed the perjury counts after the conviction, and his ruling is now being appealed by Morgenthau.

But the SIC did not spend two years conducting over 200 interviews and 25 audits because of a penny-ante relationship between an unknown builder and a hustling bureaucrat. Beneath the surface of these shady dealings were intimations of an extraordinary power play pitting Cuomo and son Andrew against the ex-governor’s appointments secretary and Democratic Party chief John Burns.

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It was lobbyist Burns, retained by Partridge, who managed in late 1983 to get his old friends from the Carey days — OGS commissioner John Egan and Cuomo deputy Hank Dullea — to approve the state’s rental of an additional Broome Street floor. And it was Andrew Cuomo, then his father’s special assistant, who mysteriously got wind of this last-minute boon for Partridge, and the old boy network that produced it, and turned himself into a one-man state police force, interrogating deputy commissioners in the middle of the night and taking days to plough through OGS’s files on the lease. Not surprisingly, Andrew Cuomo’s expressed suspicions prompted Egan to cancel the new floor he’d just ordered, and Mario Cuomo’s displeased questions quickly convinced his deputy Dullea to turn his back on Burns.

The Cuomo version of these events is that sleuth Andrew smelled influence peddling and blew the whistle. The SIC, which never released Andrew’s testimony and never grilled the governor, could not settle the question of whether or not there was any connection between the actions the Cuomos took to block the rental of the additional floor, and Shelly Goldstein’s reasons for wanting it blocked. But the apparent coincidences of the Broome Street affair, when combined with the similar coincidences of Sterling Forest, present a disturbing scenario of possible conflict — one that has now been embraced in an ongoing civil suit brought by Manhattan Savings Bank, which financed Partridge’s renovations.

The bank’s attorney, Terry Gilheany, has argued in court that Andrew Cuomo acted “at the behest of a major campaign contributor to the governor.” The bank’s court papers suggest that the Cuomo-provoked cancellation of the additional floor, and the state’s refusal to pay the full rental that Partridge claims he is due, were part of a campaign to either force Partridge to sell up to 60 per cent of Broome Street to Goldstein at a discounted price or at least to punish Partridge for defaulting on an unrelated contract he had to install windows in a New Jersey building owned by Goldstein.

Goldstein concedes in his own SIC testimony that he “blew up” at Partridge when Partridge failed to deliver new windows on a 21-story federally subsidized project Goldstein owned, with Jerry Weiss and others, in New Jersey. “I threatened to ruin him in the state of New York. I threatened to do anything,” Goldstein testified. Partridge recalls that Goldstein said: “I am going to fucking destroy you so that you will never do business again in New York State. I am going to fucking destroy you in a way that you will know exactly where it came from, and how it was done, but you will never be able to prove it.”

Paul Adler, a Partridge lobbyist who’d known Goldstein for years and was well connected in Albany, testified that Goldstein threatened him at the same time in almost precisely the same language. “He told me my name would be mud,” said Adler.

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A Sudden Reversal

The Broome Street brouhaha climaxed in January 1984 — the same month that Mario Cuomo announced the Sterling Forest interchange. The governor simultaneously embarked on a sudden and angry campaign to get at the root of OGS’s decision to award Partridge an additional floor. His counsel, Gerry Crotty, got the lease file from OGS. Then, according to SIC testimony, the governor summoned one of his top deputies, Hank Dullea, and grilled him about his contacts with Burns, asking if anyone had suggested that the governor had a personal interest in the issue of the extra floor. Once Cuomo told Dullea he’d gotten the facts wrong about the need for an additional floor, Dullea left the meeting “very troubled.” Later Dullea, approached by Burns to talk about Broome Street near the elevator on the second floor, accused him of misrepresenting the situation in their previous discussions, and walked away.

After Crotty returned the file, Andrew Cuomo reclaimed it. Andrew would subsequently testify, according to the SIC report, that his interest in the lease was piqued by an anonymous oral tip that made no clear allegation but merely suggested that “it would be worth looking at 400 Broome Street.”

The flurry of intense activity at the highest levels of state government that following this “tip” was most unusual. In a Voice interview, Andrew Cuomo conceded that anonymous callers did not frequently get through to him in the executive chamber, and that his information might not have come from one, but rather from a confidential source whose identity he has since forgotten. He insists that it wasn’t his father, Goldstein, or Goldstein’s lawyer and Cuomo confidant Jerry Weiss who suggested he begin his unusual investigation. Andrew Cuomo also could not explain why he didn’t turn this inquiry over to the SIC, or the comptroller’s office, or a D.A. In any event, shortly after Cuomo began his internal investigation, he told Egan to kill the deal.

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By February, an embarrassed Egan, who had awarded Partridge the additional floor against the advice of all his top staff, traveled out to Broome Street, introduced himself to Partridge for the first time, and told him that he couldn’t go through with it. Egan told the Voice that his conversations with Andrew and others had convinced him that the governor himself was “damn upset” about the maneuverings to deliver the floor.

Then suddenly Goldstein’s attitude changed. He had learned all about the Broome Street lease and, according to Partridge and Adler, began talking buyout. “He indicated to me that he could cure” the extra floor problem, Partridge testified. And in a letter Partridge wrote in 1985, he claimed that Goldstein promised “to make me a rich man again” if Partridge brought him into Broome Street, suggesting he could get the lease negotiated.

A macho man who wore cowboy boots and fashioned himself a frontier entrepreneur, Partridge was by then on his knees, damaged by the decision about the additional floor and the escalating costs at Broome Street. “He broke down crying at one meeting that he was being ruined because of this building in New York,” recalled Goldstein. “Harry is a big man. This really cracked us up a little bit.” Partridge says he refused to sell to Goldstein; Goldstein says Partridge just never gave him the hard numbers on which he could base an offer.

At one point, lobbyist Adler says Goldstein told him: “What the hell’s the matter with that guy — isn’t he afraid of me, of what I can do to him? Tell him to see — he’ll be rich again.” But Partridge never buckled, ultimately lost the building, and went bankrupt. “I think it was too close a coincidence,” Adler told the SIC, “and I think there was an opportunity there to take advantage of a business venture at a weak point. I think the eighth floor was taken away.”

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A Blast from the Past

With contradictory testimony and no clear resolution, the SIC dropped this aspect of its probe. Its May 1986 report was instead an unprecedented attack on a sitting state commissioner — the gregarious career civil servant Egan. “The predominant and disturbing conclusion of the Commission’s investigation,” said the report, “concerned the utter failure by OGS to demonstrate an appropriate degree of concern for the standards of conduct required of state employees.” Citing the $371 million OGS budget, the report said that “attitudes towards ethical conflicts within the agency must be profoundly changed, from the field level employees up to the Commissioner.”

The rationale for this assault was Egan’s apparent indifference to Siggia’s conflicts with Partridge and two other landlords associated with the World Trade Center move-out, as well as his accommodation to Burns on Broome Street. The SIC characterized the Broome Street dealings as “self-serving behavior and favored treatment for old friends,” concluding that Egan’s “evaluation and professional judgment appeared to have been formed to a far greater extent on the basis of who last spoke to him rather than on the merits of the transactions.”

The SIC may have come down on Egan this sharply because, after pouring resources into its two-year probe, the commission stopped short of bringing the Cuomo/Goldstein issues to any conclusion. In any event, its hard-hitting findings against Egan have been blithely ignored by the governor’s office. Indeed Andrew Cuomo’s attitude about the SIC probe is one of contempt, even though three of the seven commissioners who conducted it, including the chairman, David Trager, were appointed by Governor Cuomo and came from the top levels of the U.S. attorney’s office. A fourth commissioner, appointed by the assembly, was Joe Hynes, whom the governor subsequently named special state prosecutor.

A couple of weeks before the report was released, Goldstein quit his post as chair of the State University Construction Fund, but Andrew Cuomo says the resignation had nothing to do with Goldstein’s bullying conduct in the Broome Street affair. Of course, Andrew Cuomo’s relationship with him grew closer in the aftermath of the report, so there was certainly no attempt by the Cuomo family to distance itself from him.

Half a dozen top OGS officials immediately below Egan were slammed in the report, or embarrassed at the hearing, none more savagely than OGS counsel Emeric Levatich, who was described as routinely approving the most blatant conflict-of-interest arrangements between OGS staffers and firms doing business with the agency. Egan and Levatich respond that Siggia’s employment by landlords who benefited from his state decisions didn’t violate the law until new legislation was passed last year — a law the SIC recommended be adopted.

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While one deputy commissioner has left the agency to return to a high-level post at the Corrections Department, it is unclear that this transfer was in any way connected to his role in the lease scandal. Other than him, a couple of low-level agency personnel were demoted. This record of response tends to confirm the indifference the report identified.

Egan says he’s survived because the governor “has a lot of trust in us.” He says Cuomo “was very much aware of the report,” and that “if the governor thought any of the allegations were true, I’d be long gone.” The commissioner makes an impassioned defense of his agency’s overall record for honesty, citing the World Trade Center move-out as an aberration that bypassed the normal leasing procedures. He also points out that he referred the case against Siggia to the D.A., though it was long after the SIC had opened its own probe, initiated by a complaint from the Republican senate.

John Egan is a man who learned early in life how to please those with power. He personally handles the petty favors in Albany that make powerful friends — everything from state cars to office furniture. Just as he had shuttled feverishly from side to side during the Broome Street battle, he appeared to weave back and forth again as a witness at the SIC a year later. In his first appearance he testified that Andrew Cuomo hadn’t advised him to cancel the eighth floor, and then, after Andrew said he had, Egan confirmed Andrew’s testimony in a second appearance. He says he didn’t know about Andrew’s intervening testimony.

Egan advertised himself during a Voice interview as someone who’d been around long enough to anticipate what governors and those with power expect of him. At the SIC he might’ve anticipated wrong. But in the end, his performance obviously satisfied the only audience that really mattered. ❖

Categories
From The Archives IMPEACHMENT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Donald Trump’s Political Football

Trump Political Football
January 14, 1992

The venture that made Donald Trump a national figure wasn’t a real estate or casino project. While his own later self-promotion successfully depicted him as a magical master of the deal, it was his three-year dalliance with football — a game he loved to watch and hated to lose — that initially thrust him onto the national stage.

With George Steinbrenner only a few miles away in the Bronx, Donald understood that the moneymen behind sports attract more publicity bang for their bucks than any other venture capitalists in America, and part of his genius was to use the exposure that a puny investment in football gave him to catapult into the consciousness of the country. Football became Donald’s way of achieving his ultimate objective — the mass marketing of the Trump name. His first national newsmagazine profile was in Sports Illustrated, not Business Week or Time. The lead of the first Sunday New York Times Magazine paean to him was his dominance at a 1984 football forum. His first major interview on national television was not with Barbara Walters, but on one of the Sunday pregame shows.

Donald began looking for a football team to buy before he could afford one, talking to one National Football League owner as early as 1981. He was simultaneously exploring his prospects with the United States Football League, the new, fragile federation of 18 underfinanced teams fighting for a foothold in America’s most lucrative sport. From the beginning, he seemed to vacillate between the two, attempting to use the threat of joining the USFL — which was still a year away from its first season and still putting franchises together — as leverage with the behemoth NFL. The difference in price between the two options was astronomical — a USFL franchise might need a few million in start-up funds, while NFL franchises were selling for at least 10 times that. Donald’s solution was to figure out how to buy an NFL franchise at a USFL price.

In 1981, Donald began wining and dining  Baltimore Colts owner Robert Irsay, and the talks continued on and off into 1983, but the two couldn’t agree on a price. Irsay and his counsel, Mike Chernoff, would later claim that in the course of their discussions Donald had tried a daring pressure tactic, suggesting that he would buy a USFL franchise and force his way into the NFL if Irsay didn’t sell him the Colts. Chernoff claimed that Donald told him privately he would “see to it that it was worthwhile” for Chernoff if the lawyer would persuade Irsay to agree to the sale. (Donald would coolly deny these charges under oath years later, saying only that it would not “be my place to say that.”)

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After the first unsuccessful run at Irsay went nowhere in 1981, Donald had backed away from the NFL and made a $25,000 down payment to the USFL to obtain the New York franchise, but he did not make the second payment when it came due in 1982. According to Donald, he decided not to follow through on the purchase after talking with NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle about the plusses and minuses of going with the USFL — a peculiar selection of an adviser on the issue. Rozelle, he claimed, predicted doom for the league. Donald, on the other hand, was tempted by the notion that combining a daring, new football league with a telegenic and glib young owner might be just the right recipe for the instant media attention that would advance his other business interests, even if the league failed. Despite this hunch, he decided, at least temporarily, to take a pass on it and keep his options open with the NFL. An Oklahoma oilman, J. Walter Duncan, took on the USFL team in New York, the Generals.

Since playing in Shea or Yankee Stadium in the spring — the designated season for the USFL — created a scheduling conflict with baseball, the Generals had followed the NFL Giants to the nearby New Jersey Meadowlands. But, aside from snatching Georgia running back Herschel Walker from the college ranks, the franchise’s first season was both a football and financial disaster, winning six games, losing 12, and racking up a $2 million deficit. Duncan was ready to sell, and any buyer was in an excellent position to dictate the terms.

Donald made one last attempt at Irsay and Rozelle in early 1983, but could not force the Colts price down. One other NFL development also pushed Donald toward the USFL — Leon Hess, the sixty-nine-year-old oilman who owned the New York Jets, made it publicly clear that he was seriously considering a move to the Meadowlands as well. That might eventually open the door for Donald’s Generals to become the only New York football team — if the scheduling difficulties could be resolved.

Since the Jets’ twenty-year lease at Shea ended on January 1, 1984, Hess had written the mayor a year ahead of time, advising him that the team was entertaining proposals for a stadium lease and would select a future site based on a review of the city’s submission and “others” — an unmistakable reference to Jersey. Hess had been dissatisfied for years with Shea, a stadium built for baseball, with terrible sight lines for football and a scanty 60,000 seating capacity. The best Ed Koch could offer to mollify him were vague renovation promises that added only 10,000 seats and ninety-eight luxury boxes. After Hess received the city’s final proposal, his protracted silence was widely interpreted as a bad omen.

With Hess’s departure appearing more and more likely, Donald opened talks with Duncan to buy the Generals. On September 1, 1983, Trump signed a nonbinding purchase agreement with Duncan in which he agreed to pay up to $5.3 million for the team over a period of six years. On September 22, with the word out that the Jets were going to Jersey, Trump announced his purchase of the Generals at a press conference, though the transaction hadn’t actually closed. Six days later, Koch declared an impasse and announced the departure of the Jets. On October 6, Hess’s agreement with the Meadowlands was made public. On October 18, Trump and Duncan finalized their deal, with Donald making a $1.2 million initial payment and signing promissory notes of $683,333 for each of the next six years, to be paid to Duncan so long as the Generals and the USFL survived. Donald personally guaranteed the payments.

The terms of the Duncan contract carried a blueprint of Donald’s grand plan for the league. The document anticipated a “merger or absorption of part or all of the USFL into any other league” and even the possibility that Donald or the Generals might receive a “consideration” for arranging such a merger. The only “other league” was the NFL. Instead of paying $70 million or more for an NFL franchise, as a near USFL owner did for the NFL’s San Diego team in 1984, Trump believed from the outset that he could invest a stretched-out $5 million for a USFL team, take a few years of losses, and then force his way into the big league, either by cutting a deal with Rozelle, forcing a merger of the two leagues, or winning an antitrust lawsuit.

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But Donald did not plan to own the third-string NFL franchise in Jersey. Hess had agreed to a twenty-five-year lease in the Meadowlands, while the Generals had only a year-to-year lease at the facility. With the Jets out of New York, Donald saw himself as the future owner of the only football franchise in the center of the largest media market in the world. He not only envisioned owning New York’s team, he pictured himself as the builder and owner of the city’s first football stadium. Trump understood what only a handful of others did at that time — that, with the advent of luxury boxes and leased seats, the real money to be made in football was not in a team, but in a stadium. As Donald saw it, his New York Generals would play in the Trumpdome — a facility that would manufacture money and be usable for the Olympics, major concerts, the NCAA’s Final Four, and a bonanza of other possible events.

Reaching this dual goal required a careful strategy. First, Donald had to steer the USFL into playing a fall schedule. He was convinced that spring football would forever be second-rate football, with second-rate revenues. No one would invest hundreds of millions of public or private dollars to build a stadium for a team that played football when Donald, and much of the rest of the most lucrative television market, was out on a golf course. If the league moved to the fall, theorized Donald, it would either get a new network contract, replacing its $50 million ABC deal with a far bigger television bonanza that would position the USFL to compete effectively with the NFL. Or it would be passed over by the networks — in which case the USFL would have a viable antitrust suit against the NFL-network monopoly. In either event, Trump believed, Pete Rozelle and the NFL would be forced to the merger table, and if any USFL teams made it into the powerhouse league, Donald’s would be certain to be one of them.

Second, Donald had to secure a New York stadium for his team. The short-term option was Shea. So, unnoticed by the local media, new language was suddenly, and somewhat mysteriously, added to the Mets’ new lease at Shea, permitting the fall use of the stadium by a USFL franchise.

But Donald’s long-term objective was to position himself with top state and city officials so that he would be able to push the concept forward and then take over the development of any stadium project. By the time Leon Hess formally announced his departure, the city and state had already actively begun to consider the construction of a new stadium. Hess had expressly sent that message — i.e., the necessity of one — as both an ultimatum and an invitation.

Hess hated leaving New York almost as much as he hated the thought of remaining at Shea. So when he declared his intention to move to New Jersey, he wrote Koch an open public letter, promising to return to New York in five years if a new stadium — a football stadium — was built. He concretized his intention to return by putting up a $10 million bond with the Meadowlands, which he would forfeit if he opted out of his lease there. He built a window of opportunity into the Meadowlands lease, giving New York until February of 1986, twenty-seven months in the future, to come up with “all necessary permits, detailed plans, authorizations, approvals and financing” for a stadium. If New York complied, Leon Hess, who considered his reputation as a man of his word a stodgy asset, “pledged to return.”

The Hess window of opportunity made it imperative that Donald insinuate himself inside any New York stadium planning process so he could direct it in ways that maximized his own — rather than Hess’s — interests. As foreboding as a possible Jet return might be for his ultimate strategy, Donald recognized that the promise of it was a mixed blessing. The lure of a possible Jet return provided the impetus for public investment in a new stadium. The widely publicized Hess letter compelled some sort of concrete response from new governor Mario Cuomo, who’d succeeded Carey at the start of 1983, and from Koch, who was so angered by the Jets’ departure that he wrote Hess a letter threatening “an aggressive effort to negotiate with teams from the new leagues.” (For more on Donald Trump’s relationship with Mario Cuomo, click here.)

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Hess’s pledge had in effect created the stadium opportunity that Donald planned to expropriate, but bringing the Jets back was the government’s initial motive, never his own. Trump might have been willing to accept the Jets as a secondary tenant at his stadium, but it is the primary tenant in a football facility that reaps its greatest financial benefits. For example, the Mara family, owner of the Giants, was given control over seventy-two luxury boxes when the team became the first, and primary, tenant in the Meadowlands. At $40,000 apiece, the Maras collect $2.8 million a year that they don’t have to share with the visiting team or with anyone else. As a secondary tenant, Leon Hess receives nothing. The Maras controlled those boxes, even for Hess’s games. But the only way the Giant monopoly on luxury boxes could become an incentive for Hess to move to the Trumpdome was if he, not Donald, got a similar prime tenant package.

Donald, however, wanted prime tenancy for his Generals and, while he might be forced by circumstances to live with the Jets and share the facility, he never, over the course of the two-year stadium discussions, did anything to try to entice them. His objective was his own stadium for his own team.

These dual goals were mutually reinforcing. His NFL strategy had to succeed for his stadium strategy to succeed — meaning that he had to get the Generals into the NFL to get the city and state to go ahead with the stadium. Clearly, New York was unlikely to back the construction of a stadium for a struggling franchise in a struggling league. So even before he closed his deal with Duncan, he went public with a blast at the NFL, urging a USFL switch to a fall season in a September 30 New York Times story, the same day the Jets’ departure dominated the sports pages. Within two or three years, he said, the USFL would reach parity with the NFL and could “perhaps go head-to-head” with it. Adding that some USFL teams could already beat NFL teams, he said he was “talking to large numbers of people” and that “more NFL players” would be “coming over to the USFL.” It was the first time a USFL owner had openly talked about abandoning the spring concept and inducing NFL players to join the new league.

USFL Commissioner Chet Simmons was left with the responsibility of countering Donald’s brash statements, noting that “for the moment we are concentrating on building the league in its present format” and that the USFL “would be foolish to challenge an organization as well established as the NFL.” He branded Trump “an active young guy who is doing a lot of thinking, some of it off the cuff.” Little did Simmons realize that his newest owner had just announced what would — within eleven months — prove to be precisely the timetable and strategy adopted by the league.

A few weeks later, Trump went to Houston for the annual meeting of the league’s owners. Addressing his colleagues for the first time, Trump announced that he hadn’t joined the USFL to become a “minor league” player, and immediately launched his campaign for a switch to the fall, insisting that the TV dollars were there. The owners, who had cautiously carved out this spring niche for themselves, weren’t ready to accept his proposals, but they did vote to put this challenging new owner on their executive committee.

Donald next took the dramatic step of signing a string of first-rate players — Kansas City All-Pro free safety Gary Barbaro, Seattle cornerback Kerry Justin, and Cleveland quarterback Brian Sipe, the NFL’s most valuable player only three years earlier. On December 20, 1983, Donald announced the hiring of former Jet head coach Walt Michaels, a mortal enemy of Leon Hess. By the beginning of 1984 Donald had recruited six active starters from a variety of NFL teams, making a bigger splash than anyone in the USFL had in the league’s first two years of existence. Part of the league’s economic plan had been to keep salaries low, minimize superstar acquisitions, and slowly build a league. Donald was not about to be patient.

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At the end of December, Ted Taube, one of the USFL’s most vocal and successful owners, wrote Trump and two other leaders of the league a joint letter suggesting that the USFL could not “allow individual owners to pursue plans which are suited to their perceived best interests or whims” and citing Donald as his only example.

“It may be in Don Trump’s best interests,” Taube wrote prophetically, “to pursue a strategy which gains him leverage, politically or otherwise, to move to Shea Stadium and become the NFL franchise which the City of New York is apparently ready to underwrite at any price. But Don’s best strategy for the Generals could be devastating for the USFL as a whole.”

Despite the concerns about Trump that were being voiced by some of the owners, his money and his media attention were still viewed as a plus, as were the ties he claimed to the top brass at ABC, the network with the spring USFL contract and the most likely buyer of a fall package. In early January, the executive committee abruptly stripped Commissioner Chet Simmons of his negotiating role with the network and made Donald the lead man. An owner for barely three months, Trump had already become the dominant force in the league’s bargaining with its key source of revenue.

Donald also wasted no time in launching his stadium campaign. On January 4, Governor Cuomo announced in his State of the State address that he wanted the state’s Urban Development Corporation to “undertake a comprehensive statewide study of the need for sports facilities.” A top Cuomo aide, Bill Eimicke, began a series of calls to UDC president Bill Stern, urging the creation of a Sportsplex subsidiary that would undertake the feasibility study sought by the governor, as well as begin to plan a city stadium and several upstate sports facilities. In these initial conversations, Eimicke suggested only one name for the new Sportsplex board: Donald Trump. Trump had already spoken directly to Cuomo about building the stadium, and Eimicke told Stern that the governor was “certainly interested in any ideas Trump has.” 

Eimicke’s calls were quickly followed by his statement to a Daily News reporter that the state was considering three possible sites for a New York City sports facility to compete with the Meadowlands. Trump’s name appeared in the same story — quoted as being in opposition to the three proposed sites and disclosing not only that he preferred another, unspecified site but that he planned to build the stadium himself. The notion of Trump building the stadium, and the Sportsplex concept itself, had debuted in the same story, just as he would have wanted it. The two ideas would remain linked in the public mind from then on.

When Stern called Donald to ask him to join the Sportsplex board, the developer said yes immediately. The day after their first conversation, on January 19, Stern and Trump held a perplexing press conference to announce the formation of the Sportsplex corporation and to name a single member of its new board. By the time the press conference was over, Donald was wearing three hats. In addition to his public role as a member of the board that would plan the stadium, and his already advertised his interest in building it,  Trump added that his Generals might become the stadium’s primary tenant, saying “one day you might want to ask me to move the team” to New York, but that otherwise he would not “instigate it.” No one in the media or the government seemed to notice the blatant conflict.

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Over the next month or so, ten other members were named to the Sportsplex board, including George Steinbrenner, who stalked out of the first full-board press conference in February when Donald started answering press questions, snapping, “This isn’t going to be a one-man show, or I’m not going to stick around.” Curiously, the board included one other USFL owner, whose team played in Michigan, but the only member with NFL ties was a former Jet player. Spurred by Donald’s behind-the-scenes recommendation, the board quickly hired Laventhol & Horwath as its primary consultant on a million-dollar feasibility study, and L&H retained the architectural firm of Hellmuth Obata & Kassabaum. L&H had long been Donald’s accountants, and HOK would become Donald’s architects for his proposed stadium.

Meanwhile, Donald was proceeding inside the top ranks of the USFL with his campaign for a fall schedule. Two days before his press conference with Stern in January, Trump wrote letters to every USFL owner reiterating his arguments for a switch to the fall, invoking endorsements from Howard Cosell and Jimmy the Greek, both of whom, he said, gave the league “virtually no chance of failure” if the change of seasons occurred.

The letters, which anticipated that a fall season would “create psychological havoc with the NFL,” were delivered the same day the owners gathered in New Orleans for their annual meeting, where Trump quickly took the floor again. Urging that the owners not repeat his comments to the newspapers, Trump said a fall schedule would lead either to a league with television contracts that would make it just as strong as the NFL or to a merger — “and the merger is going to take place sooner rather than later.” Trump was so adamant, and the debate so acrimonious, that Commissioner Chet Simmons had to promise to appoint a committee that he euphemistically said would look into “long-range planning.”

A profile of Donald that ran in an early February edition of Sports Illustrated certainly fed the fears about Trump — within the USFL and in the NFL. Labeling Trump “the biggest wheeler-dealer in all of sport” since his purchase of the Generals several months earlier, the article quoted Donald as saying he “could have had four or five NFL teams” but went to the USFL instead because he liked a “challenge” and because “the NFL is very vulnerable.” The article concluded with flat predictions that he’d build a stadium in New York and swing the USFL to the fall; it was only a matter of how soon.

Trump was also moving on another front: television. While he talked with executives at CBS and NBC, his focus was on ABC, the network that was already televising USFL games and had no NFL Sunday schedule. Even before Trump had been designated as the league’s TV negotiator in January, he had contacted Jim Spence, the ABC vice president who handled the USFL. He told Spence in their first conversation in December that he wanted the league to switch to the fall, and Spence seemed open-minded about the possibility of ABC televising a USFL fall schedule. Then, one afternoon in early 1984, Trump had what he claimed was the longest phone conversation of his life — four and a half hours — with Spence, who was encouraging again, at least as far as Donald later recalled it.

While in his initial conversation with Spence, Donald preferred a move to the fall by the 1985 season, he pushed the date back to 1986 during the second marathon session. Spence, whose network was dependent on the NFL giving it a glamour schedule of Monday night games matching the best teams for prime-time ratings, told Trump he was concerned about how the NFL might react if ABC signed a fall contract with the USFL. But he also acknowledged that all the network had on Sunday afternoons were cartoons, up against the most popular sporting events in human history. A USFL schedule did have a certain allure.

When Spence and Trump talked a third time a few days later, however, the ABC executive had changed course and emphatically declared that the network would not air the USFL in the fall. Donald later characterized the early conversations as “moderately positive” and the last as Spence “slamming the door in my face.” But he did not tell the league about the contacts nor did he reveal his even less encouraging approaches at NBC and CBS, all of which occurred in February and early March of 1984.

Nor did he mention to anyone at the USFL his strange rendezvous with Pete Rozelle. When Donald called him in mid-March, Rozelle was the most powerful man in American sport — which meant he was the kind of man Donald liked to describe as a friend. In fact, other than brief conversations at parties, the two did not know each other. Nonetheless, when Trump asked for a meeting, Rozelle said he’d be free later that day. Donald offered to rent a room in the Pierre Hotel for a 4:00 P.M. meeting and called back with a room number. Neither he nor Rozelle said what the subject of the meeting would be; both understood that it was dealmaking time.

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Unbeknownst to Donald, the NFL had just sponsored a slide-show seminar for sixty-five league executives called “USFL vs. NFL,” put together by a Harvard Business School professor and commissioned by the NFL’s Management Council. The strategies outlined at the conference for putting the USFL out of business included forcing ABC to discontinue televising spring games by giving them a weak Monday schedule, as well as “co-opting the most powerful USFL owners with promises of NFL franchises.” Rozelle hadn’t attended the seminar and later claimed that when he heard what had happened there he “almost got physically ill.” In any event, the only man with the power to effectively dangle an NFL franchise was Rozelle, and the skillful old hand hardly needed Harvard to tell him how.

Both Rozelle and Trump would testify at the antitrust trial that took place two years later about this crucial meeting, and their accounts would differ substantially. (Rozelle’s version was supported by a file memo he wrote after the meeting and the claim that he’d discussed it with the league’s finance chairman: Donald had no memo and never spoke about the meeting with anyone.) Donald claimed that Rozelle had promised him an NFL team sometime in the future — “whether it be the Generals or some other team” — if Trump would help keep the USFL in the spring and block an antitrust lawsuit. Trump insisted that he said “there is no way that I am going to sell out people,” and that he would only consider joining the NFL as part of a merger, with “four or five or six teams” coming in from the USFL (out of the eighteen then playing). Rozelle rejected a merger, according to Donald, adding that he “wasn’t interested in taking in more than one or two teams” and that he would explore that possibility and get back to Trump.

Rozelle’s version was a Trump shakedown. Trump opened the meeting, said Rozelle, with warnings that he was busily developing an antitrust suit and arranging for new ownership of two floundering USFL teams. “But I don’t want to do these things. I want an expansion team in New York in the NFL. I would play in Shea Stadium, and I would arrange for a new stadium to be built for that team in New York,” Trump explained. According to Rozelle, Trump then warned him that if the NFL did not agree right away to his demands, he would have to push forward on the lawsuit and ownership matters and would wind up too committed to the USFL to walk away and cut a separate deal.

In addition to seeking his own team, Trump offered to identify two or three other USFL owners Rozelle might reward with a franchise. When Rozelle expressed concerns about the antitrust implications of such a buyout of a competitor, Trump quipped that he’d sell the Generals to “some stiff” and wait a year or two for his NFL franchise, creating a smokescreen. Rozelle said that Trump concluded with the declaration: “If I were to leave the USFL, it would be psychologically devastating to the league.”

Despite the disparities between their stories, Rozelle and Trump agreed that Rozelle had made a commitment to respond to Trump on the question of a one- or two-team USFL deal, and that he did, several weeks later. Rozelle testified that he told Trump it could not be done; Trump remembered the call but claimed Rozelle said he and the league were still “mulling it over.”

By the end of the 1984 season, the new league had bottomed out, limping through disastrous ratings and horrendous losses. Franchises from Chicago to LA, especially those in the large TV markets with NFL teams, were collapsing. Citing “one owner” as a source, Sports Illustrated ran a story listing, franchise by franchise, $60 million in losses. Momentum was building for a move to the fall out of a desperate need for a quick fix; any change had begun to look appealing.

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An expensive McKinsey management study Chet Simmons had commissioned, however, came in with a firm spring verdict, and ABC, now trying frantically to keep the league in the spring to avoid a confrontation with the NFL, offered a four-year, $175 million package, a 300 percent boost despite the vanishing teams and declining ratings. But, at an August owners’ meeting, Trump berated the study as “bullshit,” insisting that the league’s talks with TV brass indicated that two unnamed networks (apparently ABC and CBS) would buy fall programming, a direct contradiction of the McKinsey findings (this assertion was actually contradicted later by Trump himself on the witness stand in the antitrust case, when he recounted his March 1984 conversation with Jim Spence). Trump closed the argument with his threat that if the league continued in the spring, it might find itself playing without him.

With owners charging one another with betrayal, Donald won the final vote handily, though he did not get a fall move until the 1986 season. Most of the owners agreed to pretend at the subsequent press conference that the seasonal switch was unanimous. They even prepared a press release that said the decision was based on the findings of the McKinsey study, a lie so outrageous that the consultant who wrote the study threatened to expose them if any reporter called her.

Donald’s triumph, however, was short-lived. In the succeeding months, the league shrank to only eight teams. Not a single one of its founders remained a majority owner. USFL teams fled virtually every NFL city — LA, Denver, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Houston, New Orleans, Washington, Chicago, and Philadelphia — unable to compete with the established league in the anticipated fall season of 1986. With the loss of all the major television markets except New York, the league’s ability to stick it out only in non-NFL cities, and the absence of any scheduled games from June of 1985 to September of 1986, Trump’s USFL became — shortly after the 1984 vote — little more than a litigant, kept alive solely by the promise of an antitrust suit.

The lawsuit became Donald’s next obsession — a supposed sure shot at hundreds of millions in damages or an NFL settlement. He sold it to the befuddled owners with precisely the opposite pitch from the one he’d used three months earlier to promote the fall switch. Since his promise of television support for a fall schedule had not materialized, Donald now used the network’s refusal to give the league a fall contract as the primary evidence of a monopoly — a refusal, he predicted, that would lead to a court bonanza.

Donald’s lawyer, Roy Cohn, posing now as an antitrust expert, filed a federal complaint as early as October 1984. Trump announced the suit at a press conference in New York with Roy at his side; not one other USFL official was invited. With aggregate league losses jumping to $100 million, Donald forced the firing of Chet Simmons and replaced him with a new commissioner, Harry Usher, whose contract was a sure, though secret, indicator of the league’s last remaining strategy. Usher would receive a $1.2 million bonus if any USFL team merged with the NFL by 1990 and further payments for additional merger teams. As distressed as the league seemed to be to most observers, it was on precisely the track Donald had intended from the beginning — a direct confrontation with the NFL that just might lead to his own NFL franchise.

Donald’s outburst of antitrust activities was accompanied by a simultaneous surge of public pronouncements and private maneuvers on his other football front: the stadium. He tried to win a quick designation as New York’s stadium developer. If he ever had any doubts, he now understood that his Generals would only get to play in a stadium he built if the USFL won the lawsuit or if the NFL decided to bring him in out of the cold to avoid a trial. Otherwise, the league and the Generals would die.

Along with the rest of the Sportsplex board, Donald voted in October — just days before the antitrust suit was filed — to approve both a stadium project and the recommended Queens site. Though he voted in favor of the project, including the state’s preference for the cheaper open air stadium, Trump made a statement at the Sportsplex meeting noting that “the psychological and economic impact of a domed stadium would be very great for New York City, and a much more competitive stadium.” Mayor Koch quickly announced his own support of a domed stadium and objected to the Sportsplex financing mechanism — a bond sale that required the city to pick up 60 percent of the debt service costs.

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A few weeks after the vote, Donald called UDC’s Stern and ran his own proposal past him for the first time. In this, and subsequent conversations in early December, Trump said he would build a $300 million stadium and would finance it by selling most of the seats as if they were condominiums at an average price of between $4000 and $5000. The state and city, according to Trump’s plan, would pay only for site acquisition and preparation costs, including roadway and subway improvements. Trump also wanted a sales tax exemption on construction and a full abatement of all property taxes. In every significant detail, his proposal differed from the project he had just voted for — his 85,000-seat arena was 7000 seats larger, domed, financed by fans, and to be built on either the Sportsplex site “or another appropriate location.”

Yet Stern liked the sound of most of it, especially the heavy private sector share of the costs. On December 12 Trump put the proposal in writing to Stern, and his letter made absolutely no reference to the New York Jets. “If we begin building this stadium,” he wrote, “it is my strong opinion that in addition to a USFL team (whose New York rights I own), an NFL team will commit sometime prior to the completion of construction.” This was one switch on the Sportsplex proposal that neither Stern nor Cuomo would accept: The first condition in a list of provisos adopted by the state was that the stadium would be built only if “a prior commitment is received for at least two major anchor tenants, one of which is an NFL team, capable of capacity crowds.”

The governor told the newspapers he was “kind of incredulous” about the plan. “I want to see it. It sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? ‘We’ll build you a free stadium’ — pretty good.” Cuomo said he was concerned about its plausibility, and Stern quickly arranged a December 19 meeting between Trump and the governor at Cuomo’s World Trade Center office in Manhattan.

That morning Trump went to UDC, had coffee with Stern, and then drove him downtown to Cuomo’s office in his silver limousine. A chatty millionaire who’d made a fortune in computers and had never held a public post before, Stern had become quite chummy with Trump over the course of a half dozen Sportsplex meetings. Though he saw himself as a maverick reformer poised atop a bureaucracy corrupted by the Carey years, Stern had developed a temporary and out-of-character weakness for Donald. In late 1984, he saw Trump as a daring visionary of capital who could make this stadium happen. Donald’s genius at con, flattery, and hype, plus his deceptively inexpensive plan, had energized Stern. But Stern had also begun bickering with his longtime friend Cuomo over an array of issues and those disagreements had convinced him to leave the administration. He wanted the stadium as a legacy.

The meeting with Cuomo was stiff and businesslike. Donald outlined his plan, explaining little more than what was already on paper. Cuomo emphasized his desire to minimize the public investment in the project, but did not raise any questions about the level of general public access to what would principally be a condominium stadium. As soon as Trump left, Stern, who had remained behind with the governor, urged Cuomo to push ahead. He said Trump’s proposal would finally give the state something to offer Leon Hess. While the Jets had never been mentioned in the conversation with Trump, Stern saw Trump’s stadium and Hess’s team as the perfect match. He asked Cuomo if the governor could speak to Hess and float the Trump plan past him.

Though the governor promised to try to get word to Hess, Stern heard nothing further of it. He and Trump continued to refine details of the plan, and the dimensions of Donald’s stadium kept growing. A January 4, 1985, memo to the governor from Stern enlarged it to a 100,000-seat stadium, costing $400 million, with up to $90 million in public costs for acquisition and infrastructure. The extra 15,000 seats were Trump’s response to the city’s complaints — none had been made by the state — about the lack of public access. While Trump had announced this plan as a “no risk” project for the city and state, his proposal required both governments to advance a minimum of $24 million to acquire the site. If his condo seat sales proved disappointing, however, Trump could simply back out of the deal without any liability for the public expense already incurred.

Nonetheless, the revised plan received favorable notices from Koch and Cuomo officials in news stories. What sounded to most New Yorkers like a revolutionary proposal was in fact just one more borrowed idea, with Donald figuring out how to wring every last ounce of profit out of someone else’s concept. Joe Robbie, owner of the NFL’s Miami Dolphins, was at that very moment marketing 10,000 condo seats at prices of up to $1500 to help finance the construction of a 72,000-seat stadium there. The sale of luxury boxes, with dozens of seats for corporate purchase, had been used to cover stadium costs around the country for years. Trump had taken the concept to another level, however, privatizing virtually an entire stadium. He even had the nerve to require millions in public expenditures and tax breaks to make his country-club stadium buildable.

Despite the exclusivity of the plan, and the absence of any real contacts with Hess, the state and city were by early 1985 on the verge of approving the Trump proposal. Donald looked as unstoppable on the stadium with the state as he’d proven to be on his fall schedule and antitrust tactics within the USFL. He had browbeaten his fellow owners into adopting his USFL game plan; now he would seduce the state officials who succeeded the resigning Stern into not only delivering its stadium designation to him, but into adopting the same take-on-the-NFL strategy as the USFL had. The immediate price of the state’s decision to effectively become Donald’s football partner was the waste of $2 million in consultant and staff expenditures on a stadium fantasy by the city and UDC. The long-range price was the scuttling of what appeared to be New York’s last real chance at an NFL franchise — Leon Hess’s window of opportunity — and the resulting loss of hundreds of millions in taxable revenue that would have accompanied the return of football.

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In Bill Stern’s final days at UDC, he arranged a March 1985 lunch to introduce his successor, Vincent Tese, to Donald. The stadium was discussed, and Tese was noncommittal. Though Tese and Stern were virtually the only two millionaires close to Cuomo, they couldn’t have been less alike. Tese had made his money in the fast-track business of cable TV and gold and commodity trading, while Stern helped develop computerized performance measurement systems for 500 of the largest banks and insurance companies in the world. A cool, detached, mustached, trim, and elegant man of few words, Tese contrasted sharply with the short, cheeky, effusive, and always black-suited Stern. Tese immediately communicated a worldly sophistication; Stern was a rare bird and advertised it.

While Stern had known Cuomo longer than Tese, it was Tese who ultimately penetrated the Cuomo inner circle in a way Stern never could. The New York Times noted in a January 1985 story that the Tese appointment signaled Cuomo’s decision “to bring the agency more under his wing.” Tese entered the Cuomo camp as a contributor in the 1982 campaign, and over the years, rose from banking commissioner to UDC president to economic czar overseeing all state development activities. While he held his state posts, Tese and his wife continued contributing to Cuomo, donating $90,000 and becoming the governor’s third largest individual contributor. Tese’s long-standing business partner James Sinclair, as well as companies they both had an interest in, donated another $70,000. Tese, who continued trading heavily in gold and commodities and even moved a personal computer with commodity exchange software into the UDC kitchen, became so close to Cuomo he began acting occasionally as the governor’s personal financial adviser, giving him gold and silver tips.

At the same time that Tese became Cuomo’s key decisionmaker on the stadium, Trump changed lawyers on the antitrust case. In March of 1985, he dropped Roy Cohn and hired Harvey Myerson, a vigorous litigator like Cohn but one who, as Donald told Tese, “also does research.” Tese hardly needed an introduction to Myerson. He and Sinclair’s old trading companies — largely defunct but still embroiled in a variety of cases — were represented by Myerson’s litigation unit at Finley Kumble Wagner Heine Unterberg Myerson and Casey. Myerson’s powerhouse firm was also on retainer to UDC, hired by Stern in 1984 to represent the agency in a complex suit against Dow Chemical. While Trump’s selection of Myerson to handle the USFL lawsuit had its apparent bonuses at UDC from the beginning, it was hardly the only reason Donald chose him.

Myerson was a gifted lawyer who could mesmerize a courtroom, likened by one reporter to “a short Jackie Gleason in a Turnbull & Asser shirt.” A heavyset, five-foot-eight-inch, quick and raspy talker, with a $2500-a-month cigar habit, a raccoon coat, a collection of Ferraris, a glorious East Hampton estate, and a Rolls, Myerson was as grandiose and theatrical in a courtroom as he was in his personal life. He put an army of lawyers on the antitrust case almost immediately, running up a bill that totaled $6.9 million in fees and expenses by the time all appeals were exhausted. In mid-1985 he unearthed the infamous Harvard Business School report — Myerson’s much-brandished “smoking gun” at trial — which led Trump and the league to believe that they had a real shot at winning. But it was Myerson’s blitzkrieg of confidence, more than any document, witness, or argument, that infused the USFL with hope in 1985. Without that hope, it would surely have folded after its final spring season in 1985. Indeed, as the league headed into its year-and-a-half-long off season, New York Times sportswriter Dave Anderson wrote a column on the USFL headlined “The L Is for Limbo.”

Even Donald was behaving as if the suit were the league’s last chance. No invoices for the Generals’ 35,000 season tickets for the supposed fall season were ever sent to the ticket holders, and, in fact, no tickets were even printed. No arrangements were made for a preseason training camp. No stadium leases, at either Shea or the Meadowlands, were executed. No new players were signed. And the league’s only television contract for the 1986 fall season was so weighed under with conditions that no funds would be released until a game was played.

Donald was certainly in no rush to move forward on the stadium. If he wouldn’t print a ticket on speculation, he certainly wasn’t about to build a stadium on it. The only man in a hurry was Leon Hess, whose deadline for a stadium decision was fast approaching. The state and city had a choice — they could either get on a Hess timetable and, within a year, produce a solid, feasible stadium proposal, backed up by site acquisition action, permits, an environmental impact statement, and financing commitments, or they could acquiesce to Trump’s amble toward the Hess deadline, waiting to see if the USFL lawsuit might give New York a new set of options.

It’s difficult to fault Vincent Tese for his initial impulse of wanting the stadium designation put out to public bid. The city and Bill Stern had been leaning toward giving it to Trump, without competition, for fear that a bid process might make it impossible to meet Hess’s deadline. Stern strongly believed that this had to be “a tenant-driven, not builder-driven process” and later likened the emphasis on developer designation that followed his UDC departure to “building a pool in the Sahara, and worrying about the water later.”

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Once Tese decided to bid it, however, the relatively straightforward Request for Proposals took a month to issue, since two sets of lawyers and bureaucrats, one from the city and one from the state, had to agree on every line of it, just as they would on every other public position throughout the designation process. One Trump ally in carving out the RFP language was Queens Borough President Donald Manes, who pressured city officials to stipulate that the project would receive a generous tax abatement.

The RFP suggested that the state planned to move quickly, declaring that “acquisition is expected to be completed, and title to the entire site obtained by UDC, by January 31, 1986.” With a half dozen bidders, Tese announced a July 5 deadline for designation of a builder. When that date passed, he amended it to August, then extended it again and again until December. The best evidence of who stood to benefit from the delays was that chronic complainer Trump — usually the first to criticize a recalcitrant government for ignoring business deadlines — who maintained a saintly vigil at UDC’s door. He protested when Tese decided to put the project to bid, but even that was muted. He never objected — in the media or to the agency — about what turned out to be a lost year.

Cuomo had installed Bill Mattison as Sportsplex president when Stern’s appointee, a career civil servant with a broad engineering background, resigned in June. Mattison was a stockbroker without construction or management background, selected because of his long family ties to Cuomo — his father had been a senior partner at the governor’s Brooklyn law firm in the 1950s. From the moment Mattison arrived at Sportsplex, he’d become embroiled in a protracted paper war with Trump and the only other finalist, a group including Fred DeMatteis and Morton Olshan, two New York builders. An extraordinary exchange of letters went on through the fall, with Mattison prying concessions out of both bidders. While Mattison and the city were making useful demands (one, for example, enabled the public sector to theoretically recoup its up-front acquisition and infrastructure investment over the first twenty or so years of the project), the time it took to wrangle this and other commitments out of Trump may well have cost New York the only potential tenant whose projected revenues could make the stadium buildable.

Mattison also gradually persuaded Trump to move from 15,000 general admission seats to 41,000, the fifty-fifty ratio of public access to condo sale seats required by the city and state. Since the other finalist was offering 82 percent general admission, Mattison could have responded to Trump’s initial refusal to go beyond a 25 percent public share by informing Trump that the state would simply select the other bidder. Instead, only at the very end, when the designation was made in December, did Donald finally agree to a 50 percent split, still far below that of the Olshan group proposal. In effect, Mattison and Tese wound up using the Olshan group’s commitment to public access as a weapon against its proposal. Olshan’s use of the Miami model — removing from the public market only 18 percent of the seats (still the most ever leased) — meant that the stadium generated less public and private revenue than Trump’s huge seat sale. Yet the primary reason Tese eventually cited for the selection of Trump was that the city and state recouped their investment several years sooner under his plan than under Olshan’s. It was Olshan’s strong preference for general admission seats that gave Trump his financial advantage.

Olshan insisted on the public seats because he knew that was the only way Hess would bring his team to the stadium. Every one of a dozen submissions to the state by the Olshan group emphasized that their bid was tailored to Jet concerns; they repeatedly claimed that they were in touch with Jet officials. Trump, on the other hand, never once mentioned the Jets in hundreds of pages of submissions. Yielding finally in November to state and city pressure, Olshan submitted an alternate proposal raising the percentage of leased seats to 30 percent, and though this proposal still had a substantially higher ratio of public seating than Trump’s, it repaid the city and state just as quickly. While Olshan acquiesced and submitted this alternate, he stressed in his letter that he did not believe the Jets would accept it and that his earlier 82 percent ratio was still the best lure for the Jets.

“The Jets, in recent conversations with our group, have made it abundantly clear,” wrote Olshan, “that they would find only 41,000 general admission seats unacceptable” — a direct slam at Donald’s highest offer. Tese had every reason to know that Olshan was on the mark since Hess had encouraged Tese in their first face-to-face meeting back in June to look at the Miami plan, which only involved the leasing of seats between the forty- and fifty-yard lines. Both Tese and Mattison agreed in interviews years later that Olshan was a credible man honestly recounting conversations his group had actually had with the Jets, but neither made any attempt to determine before picking Trump if the Jets would reject out of hand the seat distribution of the proposed Trumpdome. Instead, Tese selected the Trump proposal precisely because of the revenue advantages tied to a seat distribution that there was every reason to believe would never be acceptable to the Jets. It was all a maddening riddle.

At the very end, a frustrated Olshan charged that the state’s delays had “endangered the very viability of the project.” He had offered a detailed plan giving the Jets a 53 percent increase in their revenues over the Meadowlands, with prime tenant control of luxury suite profits. He had proposed financing the construction of the stadium with a private bond offering that, had the designation been made on schedule, would have put enough money to build the stadium in an escrow fund prior to Hess’s February deadline, a far more secure form of financing than Trump’s reliance on highly speculative projections of future seat sale revenue.

While Olshan had designed his proposal around the Jets, Trump was disdainful in his November letter of any attempts to woo them, promising that “time and a great stadium design” would eventually draw an NFL team to the city. UDC’s rebuff of Olshan — and its designation of a developer who was serving subpoenas on Hess in the antitrust case just days before he was named to build a stadium supposedly to house the Jets — were clear indicators of the low priority the state was assigning to any possible Jet return.

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The fine print of the designation agreement that the state and city signed with Trump made a joke out of any notion that the mere act of picking a builder might be a concrete enough step to entice a skeptic like Hess to return to the city. The agreement was called a conditional designation, but it was, in fact, a hypothetical designation. Some of the hypotheticals were extended so far into the future that if Hess decided to opt out of his Meadowlands lease to sign up with New York, he would have been trying to schedule home games for dates listed in the Trump timetable for environmental permits. The agreement was little more than a succession of “if” clauses: If enough seats were sold. If the environmental impact statement (EIS) was completed before December 1, 1988. If the public sector took the necessary legislative action to fund the site acquisition and preparation. If the city determined that the site did not have dangerous toxins. If the site was delivered before December 1989.

Though Hess’s letter back in 1983 had required that “all authorizations, approvals and financing” be “securely in place before February 1, 1986,” no attempt had even been made to assemble the critical pieces — no EIS, no full appraisal of the properties on the site, no acquisition activities, no legislation authorizing the public bond issue, no stadium lease. The financing package was so conditional that Trump was protected from investing any funds at all until the state and city spent $150 million on acquisition and improvements. And the public sector didn’t have to start acquisition until Donald sold enough of his condominium seats — now valued at $12,000 each — to capitalize the project. Though Hess’s original letter had also specifically required that “all necessary permits” be obtained by February 1 and Hess had emphasized that he was particularly concerned about federal environmental permits (which were required for planned wetlands use for a parking area), the state had not even sought them. Nonetheless, as transparent a pretense as it was, the state went ahead with the designation as if it constituted an overture to the Jets.

The final negotiations with Trump and announcement of his designation occurred in a circus atmosphere at UDC on December 5. Though city and state negotiators had never conducted any face-to-face bargaining with the Olshan group, they did sit down in the end for last-minute bargaining with Trump and his lawyer, Allen Schwartz, the former corporation counsel who was so close to Koch that he was the mayor’s private attorney. It was during these negotiations that Donald made the fifty-fifty concessions and others that produced an agreement. Schwartz told city attorneys “not to worry about securing a football team” as a tenant, assuring them that “when we win this lawsuit, the Generals will be an NFL team” and that the team would move to the stadium.

The night before the designation, these talks, with Schwartz on site and Donald at home, lasted until four in the morning. The biggest point of contention, as with most Trump projects, was the name of the stadium. Allen Schwartz threw a two-hour tantrum over Trump’s right to select the name, making it a virtual dealbreaking issue. Schwartz was emphatic and in the early evening of December 4 even threatened to walk away from the deal, forcing city and state representatives to contact the governor and the mayor.

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As laughable as the issue seemed, the city and state were unwilling to let the arena become the Trumpdome. Though no one from Trump’s side ever conceded it, Donald did not want to take any chance that the stadium his Generals would try to claim as their home would be called Jets Stadium as part of some agreement to bring the Jets back. In the end, the three parties decided that the stadium could not be named without the consent of all three parties — Trump, the city, and the state — essentially postponing a selection and leaving Tese with one less attraction to dangle before Hess.

Though a press conference was called for ten-thirty the morning of December 5, the battered group of bargainers had been forced to reconvene that morning at seven-thirty and were unable to finish until three in the afternoon. Tese was in and out of the sessions, relaying issues by phone to the governor in Albany. Schwartz, who had stormed out of the sessions at around 2:00 A.M., only to be drawn back in, spent much of the day running between the conference room where the bargaining was taking place and a UDC office on another floor where Donald Trump sat waiting.

When Trump and Tese finally walked into the conference room jammed with waiting press that December afternoon to announce the designation, Trump startled everyone with his candor about the Jets, the supposed prize that would come with his $276 million stadium. “The Jets are perhaps not a very likely candidate to leave where they are,” Trump said. “I personally don’t put great credence in the fact that they may come back. And I say that upfront.” Tese tried in interviews afterward to portray Trump’s comments as part of an elaborate “mating game” between Hess and Trump, but the truth was that Trump was not going to bargain with Hess, even though he had that obligation under the agreement with the city and state.

Tese, who had actually been doing and would continue to do whatever little bargaining there was with Hess, told reporters that “there’s a lot of negotiating that’s going to go on and Donald’s not a bad negotiator,” adding that if Trump can’t get Hess, “he’s going to get somebody else.” Trump openly pointed to his favorite option — predicting a league merger or some other settlement of the USFL suit that would lead to a new New York NFL team, probably named the Generals. Insisting that there was no deal to allow Trump to bring the USFL Generals to the stadium, Tese said that “if tomorrow the Generals go into the NFL, that would be fine by the city and state.”

It took another month for Tese to send his letter offer to Hess. In it Tese did stress the single strong point of the city and state position: The Jets were promised all the advantages of prime tenancy and far more projected revenue than could be expected at the Meadowlands. Hess’s response was a volley of criticism, assailing the delays and the failure to achieve “certain routine elements for a sound commercial proposal.” He expressed his particular outrage (just as Olshan had predicted) at the seat-sale and lease-back plan, which Hess said “takes $276 million from the pockets of our fans to build a domed stadium, plus additional charges of $36 million paid by our fans just to be able to buy tickets.” By Hess’s calculations, the owners and lessees of these seats, who still had to buy tickets for any individual event (including games) they wanted to attend, would dominate the stands from one end zone to the other, with regular fans restricted to the end zone areas.

Tese and company replied to Hess’s letter with one last faux pas — offering an already enraged Leon Hess a new and improved Shea Stadium to play in if Trump’s wasn’t finished on time. This was supposed to calm Hess’s understandable concern about what would happen if he took the offer, was forced to leave Jersey by the 1989 season (as the option terms of his lease required), and the new stadium wasn’t ready yet. Despite this and all the other problems, Hess, who had at first refused to even discuss the offer, decided to meet with Tese and the City Planning Commission chairman Herb Sturz, expressly excluding Trump from the invitation list. When Hess attacked the seat-auction financing plan, during the meeting, Tese replied: “Well, we can’t put the cost of it on the homeless people who need shelter.” Tese was suggesting, as he would later to the press, that the only alternative to a seat sale financing scheme was a taxpayer-built stadium, as if Olshan’s plan for a private bond offering had never been proposed.

“I’m not suggesting you put it on the homeless people,” Hess replied. “But I can’t be a party to having a husband and wife with two children either paying $48,000 for the right of buying a ticket or leasing four seats for $9,600 a year and still buying a ticket. I think it’s a horrible thing to do.”

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When Hess’s predictable rejection hit the news, Tese responded with a public claim that “more than one” other NFL team had expressed interest in the Trumpdome and intimated that Hess had never really intended to come back to New York, a gratuitous attempt to shift the blame. In fact, as Tese well knew, Hess could have avoided the loss of the $1.7 million in interest on the $10 million he’d deposited with New Jersey any time before the February 1 deadline if he simply informed the Meadowlands he was staying. Instead, he forfeited it to consider New York’s offer.

Tese’s upbeat news, though, was a belated announcement of the state’s real plan: “If the USFL wins their lawsuit, we will clap our hands. We would love to have the Generals in the NFL.” Trump supported him by announcing that his “first alternative” was to put the Generals in his stadium, declaring: “I hope to have the opportunity. I expect the USFL to win the lawsuit.” Whatever ambiguity had existed before, it was clear now that the suit had become the only rationale for the stadium plan.

While the city lost interest in the entire stadium project after Hess’s rejection, the state pressed on. Even without a team, the governor sent a stadium bill to the legislature in April, seeking bonding authority for $115 million. UDC told legislative leaders that it was “anxious” for the bill to pass because it believed “it would be difficult to negotiate with a team unless there are state funding guarantees” — precisely what Hess had said only a few months earlier. The bill — blocked by a host of legislative attacks on the viability of the project — was designed to go into effect at around the same time as a verdict was expected in the USFL case.

As a final expression of the Cuomo administration’s surrender to the Trump strategy, Tese and Mattison actually became witnesses for Donald, Myerson, and the USFL at the antitrust trial in June. The flamboyant Myerson announced several times in court that Cuomo himself might appear, but the governor never did.

Myerson used Tese and Mattison in an attempt to prove what he called the “New York Conspiracy,” a sop thrown to a local jury and press corps. His argument was that Hess and Pete Rozelle had conspired to exclude an NFL team from New York, stringing state and city officials along in a deceptive effort to convince them that the Jets might return in order to prevent them from dealing with Donald about a stadium for the USFL Generals.

In addition to the two state witnesses, Myerson also produced U.S. Senator Al D’Amato, who described himself as a “friend” of Donald Trump’s and testified about the shifting moods of Leon Hess in three conversations in 1985 and 1986, concluding that, in his opinion, Hess “had no intention of returning and was giving me excuses that really did not go to the real reason.” What was surprising was that Myerson’s billings revealed that D’Amato had talked with a Finley partner about the case shortly before two of his conversations with Hess, suggesting that the senator may have been acting as a conscious agent of Myerson’s and Trump’s.

While Mattison’s testimony was similar to D’Amato’s — a straightforward account of one encouraging and one discouraging conversation he’d had with Rozelle about the Jets returning to New York — it was Tese who became the only witness to actually serve up the bizarre Myerson conspiracy theory for jury consumption. Tese turned the entire scenario of a year-long delay and a mismatched proposal on its head, as if Hess were somehow responsible for the state’s protracted production of a plan that flew in the face of his own demands.

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Tese painted Hess as a “bad faith” bargainer, claiming he’d even called Hess that to his face in their final meeting, a charge Hess denied under oath. What was most peculiar was Tese’s contention in the climactic series of questions at the end of Myerson’s examination that Hess’s “indecisiveness” may have stood in the way of the state’s making a stadium deal with the Generals. Myerson asked Tese if the state would have considered “other alternatives” had Hess “told you no at an early time,” and when Tese said yes, Myerson pressed him on whether or not one alternative would have been “to explore some arrangement with the USFL club, and in particular, Donald Trump.”

“Well, I think if we could have negotiated out a deal where there would have been absolutely no cost to the city or state, we might have entertained that type of proposal,” Tese answered. “And, in fact, we did kick it around a little bit, to have a stadium that would not only accommodate the USFL but would accommodate other things.” Asked if he had failed to explore this USFL alternative over the long course of the designation and negotiation process because he thought the Jets might return, Tese said: “The answer to that is yes.”

Under cross-examination by the NFL, Tese stubbornly insisted that if Trump “had walked back into our door” and said he would “put up a team, put up all the money” and build a stadium, “yes, then we’d entertain that idea,” adding that “the city was in favor of pursuing” such a Trump-guaranteed, USFL-tenanted stadium. Asked if he was willing right now “to explore the possibility of building a stadium for a USFL team,” Tese replied: “Sure.”

This testimony contradicted every public statement Tese and the city had made about being interested only in an NFL team. It contradicted the designation agreement with Trump and the amended RFP, which required an NFL franchise in writing. It contradicted every financial assessment, whether by UDC’s consultants or those of the developers, that the only way to generate the revenue to repay the public or private investment in the stadium was with an NFL team. It would eventually even be contradicted by Tese and Mattison themselves in interviews with a reporter.

Mattison couldn’t have been clearer on the point in a 1990 interview: “We considered doing it with a USFL team and we rejected it out of hand. Trump wanted to build it without an NFL team and we said impossible. We weren’t confident the Generals could repay the bonds.” Mattison, who said Myerson was “disappointed” during pretrial preparation that Mattison was unwilling to go beyond his description of the Rozelle conversations and into the plausibility of this USFL alternative, said that the city did express a willingness to support a USFL stadium with Trump guarantees, just as Tese testified. But, Mattison added, UDC had specifically rejected any such possibility.

Tese himself said in a taped interview for this book: “We would have never — ever — built a stadium based on a non-NFL franchise. The only way we would have gone with the Generals was if the Generals were in the NFL. We needed the luxury of an NFL franchise.” Confronted with the contradiction between his testimony and his position four years later, Tese said that Myerson had “sprung the question on him.” In fact, in a sidebar conversation with the judge immediately before this portion of Tese’s testimony, Myerson accurately predicted exactly what Tese would say and successfully persuaded the judge to permit this speculative testimony on the basis of his claim that “our whole position” on the New York Conspiracy issue rested on this Tese statement. When the judge tried to get Myerson to mitigate the speculative nature of the approach by asking Tese what alternatives “were considered,” Myerson answered: “I can’t say ‘were considered.’ The whole point of my line is that they would have been considered but for this stringing out.” The truth was that the USFL alternative had been considered, and rejected.

In his summation, NFL lead attorney Frank Rothman, the smooth and dapper former president of MGM, accused Tese of “willful, deliberate falsehood under oath.” Perhaps because the case was being covered almost exclusively on the sports — not the news — pages, this grave charge against a high state official went unreported. But Rothman was not talking about the contradiction at the heart of Tese’s testimony. He was castigating Tese for falsely claiming that the $276 million in seat-sale revenues would be split in three parts, evenly divided between Trump, the public sector, and the Jets. Rothman argued that the proposal Tese wrote himself and sent to Hess “put the lie” to this claimed distribution. “How dare he? Why? I suppose he is protecting Mr. Trump, and that’s troublesome, very troublesome,” said Rothman.

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The jury wound up rejecting the New York Conspiracy, like much of the rest of Myerson’s bluster, finding in a July 31, 1986, verdict that the NFL had not engaged in any anticompetitive acts. While the jury did agree with Myerson on the obvious — that the NFL was a monopoly — it could not bring itself to exact from the league the tiniest fraction of the $1.3 billion in damages that the USFL was seeking. All Donald’s spectacularly publicized courtroom trench war produced was a field goal: a devastating $3 award.

The pivotal tactical error was the decision to build the case around Trump, encouraging the jury to see it as a Donald versus Goliath struggle, rather than the battle between David and Goliath leagues that the USFL had hoped it would become. Trump was the only active owner to testify at the trial, a blunder that left the jury with no real impression of the typical USFL owner — a struggling entrepreneur battling the NFL octopus. Rothman made much of the other USFL owners’ failure to appear in his summation, contending that they were not there because “they didn’t want to talk about Trump taking them down the road of despair.” Rothman poignantly described the early owners, committed to a spring schedule and financial restraints, as overwhelmed by “the wheelers and dealers” who announced “I’m going to have it my way because I have to have an NFL franchise and then I get a free stadium.” He said Trump saw three ways to make money in football — “tickets, television, and treble damages” — and this suit was his route to all three.

The verdict was also a personal repudiation of Trump. The jury went out of its way in its detailed response to a long questionnaire from the court to clear Pete Rozelle of all liability, suggesting that they believed his, not Donald’s, version of the Pierre Hotel and other reputed conversations. Trump’s credibility had been effectively challenged at trial in a number of other ways, particularly when he was forced under cross-examination to question the reliability of a stenographer whose minutes of a USFL owners’ meeting had him openly advocating a merger strategy.

In the aftermath of the case, Trump was, as usual, quick to cut his ties with anyone who might remind him of his own mistakes. Though Myerson had once been on the Mar-A-Lago invitation list, Trump’s relationship with him was never the same after the verdict. He stuck with Myerson on appeal, but when that failed, too, in the summer of 1987, Donald dropped him altogether. The loss of the USFL case was a key factor in the bankruptcy of the Finley Kumble firm itself — the largest legal collapse in the nation’s history. Had Myerson won, there would have been a gigantic final fee, and the publicity would undoubtedly have attracted millions in new business.

When Myerson started a new firm in 1988, Donald signed one of the eight prominent statements of support released to recruit clients, unembarrassed apparently by the lead-the-lambs-to-slaughter character of the endorsement. Donald did not reveal until later, when Myerson was buried under an avalanche of horrid publicity, an indictment, and a second bankruptcy — all revolving around his alleged billing excesses — that he had himself never really used the second Myerson firm, having suffered through “so many billing disputes with Myerson” that he would “never use him again.”

Trump also cast the decisive vote at a USFL owners’ meeting shortly after the verdict to pull the plug on the long-awaited first fall season. But he had one more team-play message for his fellow owners the day before the meeting — he announced that he would permit his stars like Herschel Walker and Jim Kelly to negotiate with the NFL. The league stayed in business, with ten-member skeleton teams, while the appeal went forward. The stadium project did, too, just as nominally. The end of the league and the stadium finally came in the summer of 1987, when the appeal died.

By his own estimates in court papers, Trump lost approximately $22 million on the league. The court defeat also solidified the pigskin putsch that Donald had resolved either to break into or break up. Yet the mixed verdict — the jury’s conclusion that the NFL was a benign trust — gave Donald a way to turn the debacle into a public relations standoff. It was confusing enough to make people wonder if Donald hadn’t been cheated, by a quirk of fate, out of another golden win. While the legal blur was some solace, there was no denying that Donald had in truth suffered a crushing financial defeat. The events of 1986, from the long view of hindsight, would take on a watershed look, in sharp contrast with his previously unbroken string of triumphs and in painful anticipation of the hard years just around the corner.

(For more on Donald Trump’s relationship with Mario Cuomo, click here.)

Categories
From The Archives IMPEACHMENT ARCHIVES

Donald Trump’s Seduction of Mario Cuomo

The Seduction of Mario Cuomo
January 14, 1992

The most disturbing mystery surrounding the saga of Donald’s brief career as a football phenom was the questions it raised about his curious, yet unmistakably compelling, influence at the highest levels of the Cuomo administration. Vincent Tese was no renegade commissioner, in fact no one in Mario Cuomo’s government was in closer touch with him. And the Urban Development Corporation’s supine performance for Trump had its equivalents in other state agencies on matters wholly unrelated to the stadium, especially at the State Transportation Department, which championed Trump’s agenda in planning improvements on the West Side Highway, adjacent to Donald’s 60th Street yards.

Donald had long had a special knack for ingratiating himself with public officials, but Mario Cuomo was not just another inviting political target. Donald’s penetration of the Cuomo inner circle was a textbook case in seduction, and his compromising relationship with the administration would last even into the months of Trump’s collapse in 1990. Other than Tese’s golf dates with Donald in Florida and New York, there was little of a personal touch to the mutually beneficial Cuomo/Trump arrangement. It was all business.

What made Cuomo such an unusual government target for Trump was that when he defeated Ed Koch for governor in 1982, he ran against virtually every monied interest in New York politics, most of whom, like Donald, rallied to Koch because of his 30- to 40-point lead in the early polls. And almost from the moment he became governor, there was an extraordinary undercurrent about the dignified and brilliant Cuomo that marked him as a man who might be President. His speech at the 1984 Democratic Convention transformed this onetime unarticulated presidential murmur into so persistent a question it became, both at home and occasionally across the country, a Democratic preoccupation. This national fascination helped Cuomo become, through the eighties and into the nineties, the master of New York politics, isolated from the pack by his deliberate hermetic style, a recluse in Albany whose intelligence and rhetorical passion were seen only in glimpses.

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Part of Cuomo’s above-the-fray appeal was his religion. It wasn’t just that he was a Catholic; his predecessor, Hugh Carey, was Catholic enough to have twelve children, yet no one ever thought of him as a man to whom morality was a mission. Cuomo publicly wrestled with the Lord, weighing the heaviest questions of life and death as if it was the responsibility of a leader to help the people to understanding. He talked soaringly about values. He invoked Saint Thomas More as his guardian, a man who died for a principle. This spiritual quality, combined with the hometown presidential hopes that seemed to last forever, insulated him from inspection and criticism like no other public figure in the state.

From the beginning of the Cuomo reign, the insiders who bankrolled and benefited from the government game were studying the new Albany team, looking for weaknesses, waiting for messages, hunting for opportunities. They read every signal, interpreted every nuance, and none did it better than Donald. Figuring Cuomo out was a riddle for Donald, finding a path to him was a necessity.

Trump knew he had a bit of history going for him. In 1958, Mario Cuomo had joined his first law firm — Brooklyn’s Comer, Weisbrod, Froeb and Charles. Senior partner Richard Charles, who became Cuomo’s mentor at the small firm, had already been representing Fred Trump for decades, and Cuomo was assigned as a young associate to help with the Trump work. Fabian Palamino, then a young associate with Cuomo who became his counsel as governor, remembers their travels out to Fred Trump’s headquarters on Avenue Ζ for business lunches at which Trump dished out the cheese sandwiches himself.

When Cuomo became Hugh Carey’s running mate in 1978 and was elected lieutenant governor, Trump contributed $4000 to his minuscule campaign committee. While Trump had backed Koch in the 1982 race, he’d called Cuomo’s old friend and finance chairman, Bill Stern, on October 11, 1982, and made a $3500 donation for the general election.

Trump did not contribute again to the Cuomo committee until November 13, 1984, a month after the stadium project was approved and a month before he submitted his own plan. Several Trump business entities combined that day to give the Friends of Mario Cuomo $15,000 — making Trump one of the top donors at Cuomo’s annual fund-raiser. Cuomo had personally approved Trump’s invitation that August to serve on the campaign committee’s board of advisers. The board was formed as “a permanent finance committee” of thirty to fifty prestigious individuals, from every major region and industry in the state, to raise a minimum of $30,000 each at Cuomo’s dinner.

But the contributions were merely door openers. Donald was looking for the right insider who could get him beyond access. All he had to do, it turned out, was look at the top of the governor’s fund-raising apparatus, just as he had in 1975 when he recruited Carey’s finance chief, Louise Sunshine, as a lobbyist.

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Bill Stern had long since stepped down as the head of the Friends committee, which he’d formed way back in 1978 to help pay off the costs of Cuomo’s losing mayoral campaign the year before. Stern, who stopped fund-raising for Cuomo when he became head of UDC, was replaced at the campaign committee in 1983 by Lucille Falcone, a thirty-year-old lawyer so unknown in the circles that fund political campaigns that she was seen as merely an appendage of the governor’s office. Falcone had surfaced publicly in early 1983, when she was hired by Stern at UDC, a job she quickly resigned when news stories described her as the girlfriend of Cuomo’s twenty-five-year-old son, Andrew. She then scurried back to her law firm and took over the Friends committee. It was Falcone who recommended that Trump be named to the board of advisers in a letter to Cuomo.

Falcone was the only person to have worked at both of Mario Cuomo’s law firms. She was a young associate at the Charles firm in Brooklyn, recruited from law school in 1976 by Cuomo’s close friend, Pete Dwyer, the treasurer of his 1977 mayoral campaign. In early 1981, she was asked to join a new firm that had just been formed at Cuomo’s request by Jerry Weiss, who had been Cuomo’s special counsel as lieutenant governor. Cuomo encouraged Weiss to put the firm together so he would have something to fall back on if he lost the gubernatorial campaign.

The small firm that the thirty-eight-year-old Weiss assembled was intimately connected with Cuomo from the beginning — law student Andrew worked summers there, the campaign finance committee met there, and the firm’s biggest client became the campaign’s most generous donor.

Shortly after Cuomo won his astonishing victory, the firm was recast with two new partners as Weiss, Blutrich, Falcone & Miller and began to prosper quietly, though every one of its partners was only “30 something.” Andrew joined the Cuomo administration as a $l-a-year special assistant and soon became the second most powerful state official, but Cuomo insiders openly anticipated that he would soon wind up at the family firm, and he never denied it. He’d begun dating Falcone in 1982 and worked closely with her on the annual dinner dances in 1983 and 1984. Though she frequently worked round the clock on the committee’s activities, the struggling new firm was generously understanding about her unpaid efforts.

A few days after Trump’s December 1984 meeting with Cuomo about the stadium, Bill Stern got a surprising call from Donald about Lucille Falcone’s little law firm.

“Bill, I saw Lucille Falcone at this fund-raising meeting and I got the feeling I should retain her law firm,” Donald told him. “What do you think?”

It was an awkward moment for Stern, who had been bickering with Andrew and Mario Cuomo for months, complaining, among other things, about what he saw as the increasingly disturbing signs of the Weiss firm’s attempts to influence state agencies. He had informed them about Weiss’s call to him raising questions about the propriety of a UDC bid process on an upstate job where Weiss represented a client who’d lost the contract to another builder by more than a million dollars. Stern had also told the Cuomos about Falcone’s call to him claiming that he was excluding big-time developer Bill Zeckendorf from UDC’s gigantic 42nd Street development project. Zeckendorf had retained the Weiss firm in 1984, the developer later conceded, on the recommendation “of somebody who knew their way around the Democratic side of state politics” because “we thought they could help us politically.”

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Stern also recounted to the Cuomos the insight of another 42nd Street developer, frustrated at the small slice of the project he was getting. “I know a way I can get a bigger cut,” the developer told Stern. “Hire Jerry Weiss’s law firm.”

As Stern saw it, Trump was hardly alone in picking up the Cuomo signal. “I don’t recommend law firms,” Stern told Trump. “But Lucille Falcone is a good person and a fine lawyer.” It was the best compromise Stern could work out in his head, but it still troubled him, He had already had one bitter scene with Mario Cuomo about the firm, back in November, with Stern demanding that Cuomo distance himself from it and Cuomo responding: “You’re holier than everyone else, Bill. You judge souls; I don’t.” Stern had been shocked at the personal attacks Cuomo had heaped on him that day — related and unrelated to the law firm controversy. He decided to get out of the administration, but he wanted to get out cleanly, without a war with Cuomo.

Forty-five minutes after Stern’s conversation with Trump, Andrew Cuomo called him. He said that he’d heard Trump had called about the firm and asked Stern what he’d said. When Stern told Andrew that he had praised Lucille’s legal ability, the young Cuomo said, “Lucille told me you said that.” Andrew thanked him, and said: “I respect you very much.”

Unbeknownst to Stern, a storm was stirring inside the firm. Not only would Andrew soon become a partner, he would replace Weiss himself. Stern first learned about Weiss’s departure from the governor himself, who in late December casually mentioned to him: “Jerry’s leaving. Did you know he made $800,000 this year?” When Weiss left, the State Investigations Commission was examining some of his activities on behalf of upstate developer Shelly Goldstein. The allegation was that Weiss had used his influence to dramatically reduce the value of a state lease in a building that Goldstein was trying to buy. The state official who ordered the lease reduction — which was theoretically done to force the owner to sell to Goldstein — was Andrew Cuomo. After Andrew joined the firm in May of 1985, Goldstein would become his principal client and partner in real estate and banking ventures. (The investigation closed without any findings against Weiss or Andrew.)

Shortly before twenty-five-year-old Andrew became the young firm’s youngest partner, Trump quietly retained it. His relationship with the firm would last for almost two years, though it did not surface publicly until August of 1986. The legal work it did for Trump remains unclear, apart from Andrew Cuomo’s concession that it represented Trump in lease negotiations involving possible commercial tenants in the stores planned for his West Side yards project. When Trump’s retention of the firm did hit the newspapers in 1986, Trump’s response was: “They are now representing us in a very significant transaction.”

Though Andrew insisted in later interviews that the firm did not interact with state officials on behalf of clients, Falcone did just that for Trump on another project. She arranged and attended a July 21, 1985, lunch at the World Trade Center with Trump and Sandy Frucher, the president of the state’s Battery Park City Authority. During the lunch, Trump expressed an interest in being designated for a choice hotel site on the Battery Park site, just off Wall Street. Frucher urged him to bid when a request for proposals was announced, but Trump was looking for an inside track. When Frucher didn’t offer it, Trump didn’t bid.

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Donald was not the only one with an interest in Trump projects to retain the Cuomo firm. Abe Hirschfeld, Trump’s limited partner on the West Side and an increasingly close ally, also hired the firm in November 1985 to represent him in a disputed real estate closing. Hirschfeld publicly said in a later interview that he thought hiring the firm was a way “to get in the good graces with the governor.” While Andrew Cuomo and his partners have attempted to lowball Trump’s business with the firm — never offering a total for him or Hirschfeld — the fact is that the unwanted publicity about the long-secret retainer killed the relationship before the “significant transaction” Trump cited could close, obviously limiting the Cuomo firm’s fees.

The retention of the Falcone firm was hardly Trump’s only Cuomo move. In November 1985, Donald hired Albany lobbyist and former transportation commissioner Bill Hennessy, who’d just resigned as chairman of the state Democratic Party. When Cuomo installed Hennessy as head of the party, the Times saw it as an indication of the governor’s “intent on staying deeply involved in organization politics, since Hennessy has never held a party post and thus has nothing to fall back on other than Cuomo’s support.” On a $2000-a-month retainer, plus a $500 per diem rate, the Hennessy firm’s main job for Trump was to lobby some of the very transportation officials he had appointed for favorable rulings on an array of West Side yard issues.

As potent as the Falcone and Hennessy combination was, Donald did not stop there. In the spring of 1986, Trump hired UDC’s in-house counsel, Susan Heilbron, who had worked extensively on the stadium project for the agency. The two first discussed the job while they sat together in December 1985 during the final stadium designation talks. Well known at the top levels of the Cuomo administration, Heilbron helped engineer the selection of her best friend as Tese’s new counsel, Joanne Gentile, an attorney who had worked under Trump attorney Harvey Myerson at Finley Kumble.

Trump also tried, over a period of six months in 1986 and 1987, to lure Sandy Frucher into his lair. Frucher, one of the governor’s half dozen top advisers, eventually declined, after countless courting sessions.

On Falcone’s recommendation, Sive Paget & Riesel, the ten-member environmental law firm Trump retained for the lucrative West Side yards approval process, hired Richard Gordon, the executive director of the Friends of Mario Cuomo. Gordon, who had worked with the Cuomos since the 1982 campaign, remained director of the campaign committee, even though his law firm had a multiplicity of matters before state agencies.

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Trump’s most unusual reach, however, was for a very special driver and bodyguard, Joe Anastasi. A state trooper assigned to UDC, Anastasi had been Mario Cuomo’s personal bodyguard for years, starting when Cuomo was lieutenant governor, and had accompanied him throughout the 1982 gubernatorial campaign, starting most mornings in Cuomo’s kitchen in Queens over a cup of coffee. After Cuomo became governor, Anastasi was on his security detail in New York City until, in late 1984, Bill Stern told Cuomo that his agency needed an investigator to do background checks on state contractors and Cuomo suggested Anastasi. Anastasi worked at UDC for three years, but was seldom seen there, reportedly because he was “in the field” at UDC construction sites.

In 1986, Anastasi began accompanying Trump on various trips across the country. He told friends he was setting up his own security business and that the Trump work on his résumé would help him attract business. Top Cuomo officials, including the governor himself, learned of Anastasi’s Trump duty and viewed it as a conflict with his UDC post. He was told to end it, and he soon resigned from state service.

In addition to surrounding himself with everyone from the governor’s son to his bodyguard, Donald tried to score political points with Cuomo on several fronts. He let it be known to the Cuomos that he’d been recruited by state GOP boss George Clark to run against the governor in 1986, and he went public in 1987 with a highly questionable account of a meeting he had with national GOP kingmakers, including Roger Stone, the GOP consultant Trump had hired as a lobbyist. They had supposedly tried to convince him to oppose Cuomo in the next election, which would not occur until 1990. In both instances, of course, he’d said no. He also cooled down his irate partner, Abe Hirschfeld, who ran for lieutenant governor in the 1986 primary but was knocked off the ballot by Cuomo. Hirschfeld was considering backing Cuomo’s GOP opponent and assailing Cuomo publicly, but Trump convinced him not to.

More important, though, than any of these local political gestures was Trump’s willingness to talk openly and favorably about Cuomo’s possible presidential candidacy. From the governor’s perspective, the public praise of a Republican icon like Trump had a national impact, enhancing Cuomo’s plausibility as a pro-business candidate. Of course to Donald, his calculating praise of Cuomo had nothing to do with the governor’s public performance. Trump had not even bothered to vote in either of Cuomo’s gubernatorial elections, nor when Cuomo ran for mayor in 1977.

The final thread connecting Trump and Cuomo was Tese himself. Tese’s business connection was not with Donald directly, but with Donald’s lawyer. Neither Harvey Myerson nor Tese disclosed — to the NFL or to the federal court in the antitrust case — that Tese was a private client of Myerson’s firm. In fact, Myerson had the nerve to object, in a sidebar conversation with the judge, about a small retainer one of the NFL firms had with UDC, charging that it “raises a potential or actual concern for impropriety.” But he misled the court about his own UDC work — claiming it was “unrelated” to the stadium when he had a contract to handle the stadium bond issue for the agency — and failed to report at all his deeper, private ties to his witness, Tese.

More surprising was that Myerson’s firm decided to waive payment on $122,000 in fees due from the Tese companies in 1986 — the same year Tese testified — and wrote off another $157,000 the next year. The bankruptcy trustee in the Finley Kumble case ultimately labeled these forgiven fees — as well as waivers granted other favored clients — a “fraudulent transfer” of the firm’s rightful earnings. Indeed Myerson was personally involved in some of his firm’s legal work for Tese.

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The bankruptcy trustee eventually brought a lawsuit to recover these fees plus interest, and lawyers for Tese’s companies responded by contending that Myerson’s firm had agreed to the write-offs because it had overbilled the companies. The trustee’s suit wound up going nowhere — with the Tese firms assailing Myerson’s “inflated, overstated and padded” billings and the trustee insisting that compliance with discovery demands could not be made without violating the lawyer/client privilege. But what appeared to be beyond dispute in this two-year litigation was that in the midst or aftermath of Tese’s USFL testimony, the Myerson firm was slashing the fees it once claimed Tese’s companies owed it.

What was particularly disturbing about the Myerson/Tese intrigue was that Tese’s companies got this apparent $279,000 write-down during the same period that Tese’s UDC was awarding the firm $288,000 in new retainers for bond counsel work and was greatly increasing its payments on a suit involving Dow Chemical that had begun before Tess arrived at the agency. Myerson’s UDC earnings on the Dow case soared from roughly $200,000 under Stern to $4.4 million under Tese. Top UDC staffers at the time reportedly went to Tese and complained about Myerson’s bills, but Tese did nothing. While the lawyers for Tese’s companies would later claim in the bankruptcy case that Myerson’s firm had not only overbilled them, but had acknowledged it and reduced the bills, the companies and UDC continued to use Myerson after the collapse of Finley, Kumble, moving on to his new firm with him. Tese even insisted in a 1990 interview — shortly before Myerson’s indictment on overbilling charges — that Myerson had never overbilled his agency, a contention belied by counts in the subsequent indictment which specifically involved UDC overbilling. The confluence of these factors left Tese in a classic conflict of interest position — lending the state’s credibility to his own personal attorney by testifying inaccurately as his witness in a major lawsuit, as well as hiring and allegedly overpaying that lawyer on the public tab, while accepting waivers of at least part of his company’s private fees.

(Confronted with these appearances of conflict, Tese insisted that he paid his share of the fees but that his partner, James Sinclair, refused. Asked to provide documentary evidence of the payment, he declined, and Sinclair refused to discuss it. While Sinclair was the only individual defendant cited in the bankruptcy trustee’s suit, Tese was co-managing partner of the companies named in the action. It is difficult to understand how Tese could have paid all of his share of the billings since the trustee asserts that the companies he and Sinclair owned did not make payments at all for the 1987 and early 1988 work. Though Tese was no longer involved in these inoperative companies, he concedes he would have been partially liable if they lost the lawsuits that the Myerson firm was handling at the time.)

The casual ethical judgments implicit in this disturbing intertwine occurred against the backdrop of all the other Trump ties to the Cuomo inner circle. In fact, the Myerson firm itself — at least at the point in 1986 when Tese testified — was part of the Cuomo circle; Bill Hennessy was its Albany lobbyist as well and Andrew Cuomo would personally spend several weeks during this period at the firm’s office, negotiating a major real estate deal with Myerson’s closest friend in the firm. Through Myerson, and all his other levers of compromise, Donald had managed to insinuate himself, almost imperceptibly, within the Cuomo government, and the benefits of this relationship would extend far beyond the doomed stadium.

On the West Side, for example, Donald’s grand Television City design required the approval of several state agencies and, from late 1985 through 1987, Donald was methodically lobbying for special favors, especially at the Department of Transportation. Trump wanted changes in DOT’s planned rehabilitation of the elevated West Side Highway, which ran over the 60th Street site along the waterfront. When the site was owned by another developer a couple of years earlier, DOT decided that a partially built and never-used southbound ramp off the highway at 72nd Street — the tip of the Trump site — had to be removed entirely for safety reasons. Donald wanted it retained and converted into a permanent ramp running right into the retail mall he planned to build underneath his office and residential tower complex. Not only did DOT back the new plan, but the agency was also willing to let Donald pay for only part of it, while the other developer had been required to finance the entire cost of removing the old structure. The ramp — which state memos freely conceded “was needed” for Trump’s project “but would otherwise not be needed” — was designed to deliver customers to the very stores whose leases Andrew Cuomo’s law firm was trying to negotiate. When the plan was presented to the federal highway officials who were funding the rehabilitation project, they warned DOT that the ramp was so clearly designed to benefit the Television City project that the traffic and other impacts of both TV City and the highway improvement would have to pass environmental review standards to be built. That warning killed federal funding for the ramp.

DOT also approved a new connection from a northbound ramp off the highway directly onto the boulevard that Donald planned to run through the heart of Television City. The state’s anticipated widening of the West Side Highway was likewise designed to meet Trump concerns, with the new roadway extended exclusively on the western, waterfront side, rather than on the east, where Donald wanted to construct his project as close to the highway as he could. This decision meant that the widened road would hang out over 1.4 acres of the already small park that Donald had promised along the water, reducing the opening to the sky by fourteen percent. Trump’s planned southbound ramp would have also cut into the planned park, narrowing it to a mere thirty feet in width — barely the size of a sidewalk — in some places. And while the state had removed that ramp from its federal rehabilitation agenda because of the objections raised in Washington, it quietly encouraged Donald to construct the ramp on his own before the rehabilitation formally started. DOT so closely tracked Trump’s desires for the site that internal memos acknowledged the agency’s acquiescence but observed that this high level of cooperation was being extended “as discreetly as possible.”

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Trump’s success with DOT was largely a result of the lobbying of Hennessy. In fact, John Shafer, the assistant commissioner at DOT who helped steer much of the Trump plan through the agency, was so close to Hennessy that when Cuomo named Hennessy to chair the Thruway Authority in 1987, Hennessy made Shafer the Authority’s executive director. Lucille Falcone was also involved with the West Side planning, occasionally attending the weekly meetings Donald chaired of his West Side working group. While there was no indication that either she or Andrew played any personal role with DOT, there are memos indicating that the governor’s top staff at the Capitol was monitoring very carefully the department’s handling of the roadway issues.

The Grand Hyatt, the midtown hotel that UDC had helped Donald build in the ’70s, also got its own special state service in the Cuomo years. The benefactor again was Vincent Tese, whose agency was still the Hyatt’s landowner and was required to collect the hotel’s annual property tax payments and pass them on to the city. When Trump suddenly slashed his payment by 80 percent in 1987, UDC just accepted it without raising any questions, though it had a right to audit the Hyatt’s books under the terms of the lease. Several months later, the city asked UDC to allow its auditor general, Karen Burstein, to audit the hotel’s paltry $667,000 payment, and UDC went along. The city audit revealed that Trump had shortchanged the city by $2.8 million.

In meetings between city and UDC officials, however, Tese and his counsel vigorously resisted the audit’s findings and its release. Though UDC was merely acting as a pass-through collection agent for the city, Tese formally notified the city that he had hired an independent accounting firm “to review the audit.” His counsel adopted Trump’s position that the public release of the audit “would breach the mandate of confidentiality” in the lease. The tensions between Tese and the city were so great that Koch, Burstein, and other top staff didn’t tell UDC until the last minute that they were going to announce the audit findings at a City Hall press conference. Tese responded by criticizing the audit in public statements to the newspapers, his spokesman saying that they wanted an outside accountant to determine that the city’s charges were the result of sound accounting practices, not of “a special political agenda.”

Tese even refused to serve a demand notice on the hotel for payment as requested by the city, forcing the city to threaten legal action against UDC. The city, which calculated that Trump had already saved $60 million in taxes since the Hyatt opened, was adamant, and Burstein demanded to know “whose side” UDC was on at one heated meeting. Tese finally had to give in, agreeing to seek payment from Trump.

In the middle of the audit dispute, Lucille Falcone hosted the annual Cuomo fund-raiser at the Sheraton. Trump bought the most expensive ringside table, and Tony Gliedman, the former Koch housing commissioner who had become Donald’s main emissary on the audit issue, spent the night mingling with a crowd that included the governor, Tese, and Andrew. Trump was Cuomo’s biggest 1989 corporate giver, donating $25,000.

A few nights after the fund-raiser, Donald went to a second, private, Cuomo affair — Andrew Cuomo’s birthday party at a midtown pub. The party was cohosted by one of Andrew’s closest friends, Dan Klores, the fast-talking aide to public relations czar Howard Rubenstein, who had handled the Trump account for years. But Donald barely spoke to Klores at the party, instead huddling with Andrew for a half hour. Andrew would later claim that it was the first time he’d ever met Trump — his way of minimizing the client relationship that had a transparently troubling side to it. It was just one more rhetorical Cuomo ploy — hiding a compromising business arrangement behind the supposed detachment of personal distance.

By Donald’s decade, this sort of political intrigue had become the essence of what it meant to be a real estate mogul in New York — a specialized form of social engineering. Without a flair for ensnaring the public officials whose discretion could make or break development schemes, the New York entrepreneur was dead in the water. It was the only way to bring grand projects to life, the inevitable route to publicly allocated wealth. The Cuomo episode just demonstrated what a master Donald had become at it. Tempting, captivating, inveigling, and baiting those with public power were the tricks of his trade, and for the moment, Donald, preserving miraculously his air of innocence, was its unchallenged, brash new champion.

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Andrew Cuomo’s Biggest Rival Won’t Be the G.O.P.

When Andrew Cuomo’s father ran for governor in 1982 against a rightward-tilting Ed Koch, Mario Cuomo called himself “The Real Democrat,” lined up the teachers and other public employee unions, and overcame a 38-point gap in the polls on his way to three terms at Albany’s helm. He attributed his stunning primary and general election wins — he also beat a billionaire Rite Aid Republican managed by Roger Ailes — to “the traditional Democratic coalition.”

Today, with 78-year-old Mario at his side and in his ear, Andrew Cuomo, who helped orchestrate his father’s victory as a 24-year-old campaign manager, calls himself the leader of “The New Democratic Party,” and is running against elements of the coalition that put his papa in power. Citing a projected 500 percent increase in state pension costs since 1998, Medicaid costs that are twice the national average, the highest per-pupil school expenditures in America, and the top property tax burden, Cuomo has unveiled a 224-page program that is as much a reproach as it is reform, as shocking a shot at his own party, and its union base, as any party leader has ever taken.

It’s also a shot at the embodiment of the traditional party, Assembly Speaker Shelly Silver, who was installed by his colleagues when Saul Weprin, who’d become speaker with Cuomo’s support, died suddenly in 1994. Even as Cuomo ran for a fourth term that year, Silver, determined to show he wasn’t as cozy with Cuomo as Weprin, thwarted initiatives the governor thought could help him win. With Cuomo’s loss to Republican George Pataki and a continued GOP hegemony in the State Senate, Silver then became the only Democrat in Albany that mattered, the niche he occupied through 12 Pataki years. Even now, the 66-year-old Silver remains at Albany’s apex, transcending a crippled governor, David Paterson, and a narrow, unpredictable Democratic majority in the Senate.

Shrewdly comfortable in the shadows, Silver, who has represented the Lower East Side since 1976 and is the longest-tenured Democratic speaker in New York history, built an assembly majority that reached a record 110 seats in 2009. For the first time, though, he is now losing seats, having dropped to 107 in special elections this year. An Orthodox Jew who backs same-sex marriage, the elastic Silver adapts, ingratiates, and compromises as deftly as an Albany leader astride such a diverse Democratic conference can. He weathered one coup a decade ago, and mixes just enough muscle and mensch to get what he wants out of a 150-member body of caged egos and blatherskites, each straining for their elusive moment in the klieg lights.

Faced now with a gubernatorial candidate openly challenging the orthodoxies and interests that undergird his already dwindling, but still overwhelming, majority, Silver trekked to the podium of the recent State Democratic Convention and smiled through 17 Cuomo mentions in a 10-minute speech, all the while trying mightily to spell out how much his “Old Democratic Party” had done. So proudly tone-deaf that he speaks only in chesty monotones, Silver actually said that Democrats “are overcoming” the challenges the state faces “one by one,” adding that “we have already accomplished much,” a defiant assertion from an alternate universe. Four days after Cuomo released his point-by-point book detailing his promised takedown of the legislature, Silver blithely declared how happy he was to welcome “new leadership that appreciates and respects the legislative process for what it is, the very heart and soul of democracy.”

A day later, Cuomo appeared at the same Rye Hilton in Westchester, with Silver, Senate Democratic leader John Sampson and most Democratic legislators having already returned to Albany and underscored his differences with his party even as he accepted its gubernatorial nomination. At the end of a recitation of the problems afflicting New Yorkers, he said, “People turned to government because they believe government was going to be there to help.

“The state government that was supposed to be part of the solution,” he said, “turned out to be part of the problem. And that is undeniable and irrefutable. As we sit here today, there is still not a state budget that is done. Today’s approach requires fiscal prudence, requires competence and performance in government.” Though the delegates and galleries cheered Cuomo at times, they sat on their hands when he dissected a government controlled at every level by Democrats. How, after all, can you applaud a litany of your own calamitous and continuing failings, especially coming from the man just chosen as your leader?

The Silver/Cuomo debate may prove more compelling than the one sleepy Rick Lazio promises. If Cuomo’s extraordinary poll numbers hold, the tug-of-war between old and new Democrats, yanking the same rope in starkly different directions, may have more to do with shaping state policy than any GOP sideshow. As loud as the complaints were for months about Cuomo’s protracted policy reticence, it’s now Silver and his union allies that have gone silent, offering no response to an unprecedented blueprint that challenges them on ethics, taxes, spending, pensions, and even the legislature’s ability to map its own districts.

The State Constitution bars anyone who bets on an election from voting in it, but that doesn’t apply to these two forces of nature, neither of whose names will ever appear on a ballot opposite the other. Every insider’s dollar is on Silver, who is expected to stall and submarine one proposed reform after another, adopting only the ones he has so diluted that Cuomo will be left with little more than an empty declaration of victory.

Cuomo has hereditary charisma and a Wall Street and Albany record as attorney general that has sent his poll positives higher than any other statewide official. Just as, nearly three decades ago, Lieutenant Governor Mario Cuomo undercut a sitting Democratic governor, Hugh Carey, to clear the path for his own candidacy, Andrew Cuomo, abetted like his father by probing reporters, has forced incumbent David Paterson from the race. The Paterson demise has freed Cuomo to skip a primary message aimed at liberal Democrats and go straight to November, buttressed by a fiscal plan so appealing to Republicans and independents that he is winning surprising endorsements and may even be backed by some members of the Senate Republican minority. Steeped in the ways of the capitol as his father’s closest adviser from a very early age, Cuomo could arrive in Albany in January with a historic electoral mandate.

But Silver never leaves his trench, and he knows that every member of his Democratic assembly conference has his own trench, a district whose lines he crafted for their protection, making them impervious to the grand sweep of charisma and history. This collegial cocoon feeds off contempt for editorial pages and every other contrary voice, all of whom, including governors, are seen as transient irritants, while the assembly sits behind Albany stone, locked in lifetime sinecures, meting out “good” on their own terms and in their own time.

While the dailies have noted the underlying tensions between these two, no one has tallied the casualties if the Cuomo platform prevails. Reporters have observed that Cuomo’s demand for full financial disclosure of every legislator’s outside earnings and clients is an attack on Silver, who engineered the passage of an ethics bill a few months ago that explicitly exempted lawyers from the client disclosure Cuomo demands (Paterson vetoed it anyway). Almost every section of Cuomo’s detailed platform is a challenge to Silver’s:

  • Silver’s assembly has appointed two of the last three state comptrollers, including the current one, Tom DiNapoli, who was selected by majority vote of the legislature when the only other comptroller since 1993, Alan Hevesi, a former assemblyman close to Silver who actually won two statewide elections, had to step down after pleading guilty to a felony. Cuomo wants to require succession elections rather than continuing to allow Silver’s minions to fill vacancies. Having exposed massive fraud in the management of the state’s $130 billion pension fund, Cuomo also wants to end the sole trusteeship, joining the other 47 states that have boards or multiple levels of control over pension investment decisions rather than a single trustee, the comptroller. This Cuomo reform and others will hem in the comptroller, which Silver has come to view as an outpost of the assembly majority. DiNapoli’s spokesman told the Voice that he could support a board if the new law protected the fund from “raids” to plug holes in the state budget.
  • Cuomo wants an independent commission to draw new legislative lines by 2012 and vows to veto any plan “that reflects partisan gerrymandering,” precisely what his father refused to do when his Senate Republican allies drew self-serving lines in 1992.
  • The Cuomo platform includes an ethics commission that ends self-policing by the legislature, dramatic reform of campaign finance laws that have filled Silver’s trough, a threat to veto legislative, member-item pork, and a constitutional convention and commission that can end-run the legislature and fundamentally alter power relationships in the state.
  • Focusing laser-like on the state’s $52 billion Medicaid budget, Cuomo vowed to stop “the current politicized system” for setting reimbursement rates for any particular form of medical care, charging that “the legislature micromanages rate changes.” He also wants to aggregate pharmaceutical purchases by creating a “pharmacy benefit management agency” that would take control of these plans away from duplicative and costly union administration, shutting down a powerful source of labor patronage.
  • Cuomo has effectively nixed the Ravitch plan, which Silver encouraged and supported and would have allowed the state to borrow billions over the next three years to help close the budget gap.
  • The probable new governor plans to strip the legislature of its authority to reorganize the more than 1,000 state agencies, employing nearly 200,000 workers, and set up a commission “directed by business leaders” that will “right-size it.” He says that “decades of evidence proves that the Legislature is incapable of exercising such authority in other than a piecemeal fashion,” and that governors in 31 states have the powers he will seek. “If governors are to have the responsibility of running the State’s agencies,” the Cuomo book declares, “they should have the power and authority to do so.”
  • Deriding the legislature’s onetime favorite economic development program, Empire Zones, Cuomo will replace it with one that rewards new hiring automatically rather than dispensing tax credit benefits to businesses politically. He also announced his opposition to $3 billion in “directed capital funding” for projects covertly selected by legislative leaders.
  • Cuomo’s support of lifting the cap on charter schools, fiercely opposed by the teachers’ union, has already helped push Silver to back a bill that could lead to 260 new schools across the state, positioning New York to possibly qualify for hundreds of millions in Obama’s Race to the Top education reform funding. Silver had already blown one deadline for this funding in January and appeared willing to miss a second June 1 deadline, but, pushed by Cuomo (the only real recruit for charters since January), the speaker consented to a new cap. He put so many conditions in the bill, however, that the state may still not compete effectively for the Obama bonanza.
  • Undergirding all of this is Cuomo’s stern warning that he won’t endorse any candidates who don’t pledge publicly to back his reform plan. “I don’t sign anybody’s pledges,” Silver told the Daily News. His excuse was that pledges “are fixed in time,” and, of course, Silver prefers to float in time, only making decisions when the clock is about to stop ticking, just as he recently did on the final business day before a new charter law had to pass. Voice calls to DiNapoli, all five candidates for attorney general, and the two U.S. senators on the November ballot, Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, turned up only a single potential Cuomo running mate ready to sign his pledge, Kathleen Rice, the AG candidate he quietly favors. Cuomo even deleted some of his key reforms, like the elimination of the sole trustee for the pension plan, from the list of pledges, but DiNapoli declined to say he’d sign it anyway, suggesting that he’s more bound by another pledge, the one he made to Silver in some secret assembly fraternal ritual. After we sent the one-page pledge to Westchester assemblyman Richard Brodsky, the AG candidate Silver backs, he barked: “When Andrew wants my thing on it, I’m sure he’ll send it to me and I’ll read it then.” The pledge promises to become the dividing line between Cuomo’s party and Silver’s.
  • Cuomo is even keeping the Working Families Party at a distance, despite its intricate ties to Silver. If he doesn’t agree to run on its ballot line, the party may lose the line, since its gubernatorial candidate must get 50,000 votes every four years to retain its ballot position. Silver associates are already playing the race card on Cuomo, who picked Rochester’s mayor, Bob Duffy, as his candidate for lieutenant governor, completing what is the first all-white state Democratic ticket since 1990. The WFP may run a minority candidate against Cuomo, and its legislative allies may pass a bill giving the party a permanent line, blurring the 50,000-vote requirement. No one seems to notice that Silver picked one of the white candidates on the statewide ticket, DiNapoli, and that he persuaded Paterson to install his lifelong friend, Jonathan Lippman, as the state’s chief judge, despite the fact that a sitting Latina judge had superior qualifications. Nor is Paterson blamed for the white candidate that he contributed to the statewide ticket, Senator Gillibrand.

As sensible as much of Cuomo’s plan appears to be, especially at a time when more New Yorkers than ever consistently blast Albany in the polls, his approach to taxes would expose him to the same withering attack on Reagan Republicans his father made. “God helps those whom God has helped” was Mario Cuomo’s refrain about tax cuts for the rich. Now his son, the man who exposed the gargantuan bonuses Wall Street continues to pay, is against taxing them.

The Fiscal Policy Institute, a liberal think-tank partially funded by unions, issued a telling report a couple of months ago that pointed to two giant pots of income worth taxing, at least as long as the downturn cripples state revenues — namely, Wall Street’s record $61 billion profit in 2009, and the top 25 hedge fund managers who earned more than a billion apiece last year. Neither Cuomo nor Silver, who usually channels the FPI on tax policy but includes Wall Street in his downtown assembly district, has taken up any of the institute’s suggested revenue sources. Cuomo’s book footnotes another FPI study, which proves that the state and local tax burden falls heaviest on the middle class and is kindest to the rich (those earning between $33,000 and $56,000 pay 12 percent of their income in New York taxes, while those earning more than $3 million pay 9.4 percent). Yet he does not cite this study for that purpose and never discusses how he will attack economic inequality in his program.

Indeed, Andrew Cuomo’s book and 21-minute video contain a crisp statement of his core beliefs, and they are resoundingly liberal, from same-sex marriage to preserving the safety net, but the list does not include any commitment to progressive tax policies or even to maintaining the temporary restructuring of the state’s income tax that Silver and the WFP spearheaded last year. Their three-year surcharge raised state taxes on the wealthiest and created two new brackets, suspending a regressive system that had every New Yorker who earns more than $40,000 a year in the same, expansive bracket.

Cuomo, who appears to borrow his tax policies from the pages of the New York Post, gave the paper critical quotes after the tax increase passed, calling a hike when the economy was down “a frightening combination.” The current $9 billion budget gap would be $14 billion if that tax hike hadn’t become law. Not only is Cuomo silent about that hike now, but Silver omitted it from his list of legislative achievements in his convention speech. Lazio has already used the expiring surcharge as one of his prime critiques of the Cuomo program, putting pressure on Cuomo to abandon it regardless of the fiscal and fairness impact on state government. If Cuomo continues to mimic Clintonian triangulation, he may wind up letting the surcharge and the reformed brackets die.

It is one thing to challenge the unions on pensions, Medicaid excess, and charters, but quite another to walk away from their demand that revenues respect ability to pay. Mario Cuomo beat Koch in part by depicting him as a Reaganite on taxes who moved to repeal a levy on multimillion-dollar real estate deals while trying to reduce cost-of-living increases for workers.

Cuomo’s inequality evasiveness isn’t limited to taxes, however. The high point of his convention speech, which brought blacks and others to their feet, was his poignant portrayal of the disparities in public education: “You can go to schools on one side of town and they will take you to first-graders who are on the Internet,” he boomed. “And you can go to schools on the other side of town and they don’t have a basketball net.” He did the same with Pentium processors in one school, and metal detectors in the other. He concluded with a declaration that “discrimination is alive and well” in New York, on education, housing, employment, and other fronts.

But Cuomo doesn’t mention the Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) lawsuit in his platform or speeches, though the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, ruled in 2006 that the very inequity Cuomo is describing is chronic in the state’s school aid formula and has to be corrected. The lawsuit dragged on for 13 years, appealed endlessly by Pataki, but even after the New York City plaintiffs finally prevailed, the legislature and Paterson have stopped implementing it, preserving allocations that penalize the state’s poorest school districts. The only obvious blow that Cuomo refuses to throw at his legislative punching bag, though, is its crushing refusal now to sustain the effort toward equalizing school expenditures.

Paterson even suggests delaying full implementation for another decade, freezing the status quo of suburban advantage at the cost of short-circuited urban futures. Silver and Sampson, two city legislators, have so far appeared to acquiese in this virtually invisible conspiracy, determined to hang on to the suburban seats Democrats control. It is fast becoming the state’s shameful secret, and Cuomo appears unwilling to tackle it, even as his proposal to cap property tax increases, which fund local schools, is likely to heighten disparities.

These omissions in the Cuomo plan are, no doubt, as calculated as the inclusions. And they say as much about the candidate, who, as he moves from Memorial Day parades in Queens to tense sessions with the Working Families Party, can’t help but hear the echoes from his father’s courageous 1982 campaign.

“It’s a business that can make you forget — at least in the frenzy and heat of the campaign,” Mario Cuomo wrote in his published diary, “who you are, what you are and what you’re supposed to be. Because the goal is so dramatic, the pursuit of it so complete, unless one is very careful, everything else is eclipsed. That happens in life all the time: a temporary delight can be so tempting that it makes us forget a greater good. The attraction of a victory offered in the campaign — what it offers the ego, if not the soul — can be a powerful distraction from the greater good. The greater good for me has to be to remember that anything which is not an expression of love — or silence — is probably wrong.”

Previously: “Andrew Cuomo and Fannie and Freddie,” How the youngest Housing and Urban Development secretary in history gave birth to the mortgage crisis by Wayne Barrett.

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Michael Bloomberg’s Velvet Coup

Mugabe? OK, it’s an outrageous comparison. Forgive me. Mike Bloomberg would never shut down newspapers or use brutal thugs against dissenters in order to hold onto power. He doesn’t have to. He buys them.

Mugabe is for the likes of Charles Barron, the radical councilman who embarrassed the city a few years ago by hosting the Zimbabwean tyrant at City Hall. Funny thing, there was Barron at last week’s council hearings demanding to be heard on the mayor’s bill to gut term limits—a reform confirmed in two separate voter referendums—in order to give himself four more years in office. There was Barron offering the simplest route to continued democracy: Do nothing.

“Why do we have to change anything?” he asked after Mario Cuomo’s lead-off testimony supporting Bloomberg’s bid. “The people have spoken twice already. Why not just leave things as they are?”

Barron’s simple questions were matched only by The New York Times‘s fearless editorial page. Alone of the city’s dailies, the Times refused to bend its principles. By changing the rules at this late date, the Times warned, the mayor “will tarnish his legacy and further weaken the systems of checks and balances that are essential to . . . democracy.”

Uh, wait. Sorry, wrong day. That was the Times in August lecturing President Álvaro Uribe of Colombia “lest he become just another strongman” by grabbing a third term in violation of his country’s constitution.

Let’s see. Here it is. How could I miss it? It’s got that tough, right-to-the-point headline: “The Mayor’s Dangerous Idea.” The mayor “wants to extend his current term of office,” the editorial forthrightly states. “This is a terrible idea. . . . The very concept goes against the most basic of American convictions, that we live in a nation governed by rule of law.” Bless the good old Times. Others may cut and run in the face of tyranny. It forever stands tall.

Wait! How did that sneak in here? That was the Old Gray Lady taking Rudy Giuliani to the ethical cleaners back in September 2001—that month of true fear and fiscal panic—when he sought a mere three more months to remain in office.

I know it’s here somewhere. Oh, right, that one: “It makes a lot of people uncomfortable to legislatively rewrite a law that voters have twice approved at the ballot box. . . . It makes us uncomfortable too. . . . But we have concluded now that changing the law legislatively does not make us nearly as uncomfortable as keeping it.” Hmmm. Well, never mind.

Welcome to Bloomville, where up is down and down up, where it’s Charles Barron hoisting democracy’s flag, while the Times connives with the Post and the News to provide cover for the coup. Where tycoons of business and real estate call the shots while the once-mighty unions fall meekly into line or merely whisper their opposition for fear of offending the once and future mayatollah. Where a cabal of thieves calling themselves council members leap aboard Bloomberg’s ship as eagerly as Somalian pirates lurking for booty in the Indian Ocean.

Yes, Bloomville. We may as well give him naming rights, too. He’s bought and paid for everything else. We are inside Jimmy Stewart’s unwonderful world where muddled old Bedford Falls has come under one-man rule and morphed into an antiseptic version of anything-goes Pottersville.

Could Colombia’s Uribe—or any dreaded Latin American strongman—have done any better at mustering proxies to defend his putsch? Consider the elder Cuomo: The ex-governor was as charming as ever, offering a rambling denunciation of term limits and a sterling endorsement of a continued Bloomberg mayoralty. “He is spectacularly well-suited to the task,” said Cuomo.

Once the champion of the poor and the forgotten, Cuomo now carries the business card of the city’s elite, a group passionately committed to keeping one of its very own in City Hall. Cuomo is of counsel to Willkie Farr & Gallagher, the law firm that serves as the Washington lobbyist for Bloomberg L.P., the mayor’s $22 billion corporation. The firm is also defending the company in a discrimination lawsuit brought by 58 female Bloomberg employees. Last summer, it handled the $4.4 billion buyout of Bloomberg’s longtime partner, Merrill Lynch.

The ties stem from close friendship: Top Willkie partner Richard DeScherer handles the Bloomberg family foundation and is an executor of the mayor’s estate. He serves on Bloomberg L.P.’s executive committee and, oh yes, on the city’s sports foundation. How better to help a friend than to send forth the firm’s most famous envoy to do battle for one more mayoral term?

The taint of Bloomberg’s multibillion-dollar reach—as mayor, businessman, and philanthropist—fell on many of the true believers who testified in favor of the mayor’s end run around the 15-year-old term-limits law.

Here was Geoffrey Canada, celebrated Harlem anti-poverty fighter, whose reasoning for giving the council and Bloomberg an added term conveniently mirrored the mayor’s own: “The city is facing its worst crisis in memory,” he said. Was that the great Geoff Canada talking? Or was it the director of an organization that depends on $18 million in city contracts and the mayor’s “anonymous” private donations?

Echoing Canada was George McDonald, president of the Doe Fund. The homeless-assistance group also benefits from the mayor’s private giving and holds $25 million in city contracts. McDonald didn’t wait for the hearings. On Columbus Day, he dispatched a crew of Doe Funders to the parade to cheer the mayor with signs proclaiming “Now More Than Ever.” Newsday‘s Dan Janison watched these antics. “Must have been an impromptu decision to volunteer for this on a holiday,” he noted.

Outside the council chambers, McDonald began sputtering when Henry Stern, former parks commissioner and foe of the mayor’s bill, asked him if his city contracts had influenced his thinking. “You’re saying I’m corrupt!” McDonald shouted. “We get $10 million from the city, and we do good work!”

Actually, fear was the most corrupting factor in City Hall last week: fear of angering a mayor who may well rule until 2013. Fear paralyzed the city’s most powerful unions—the only possible political counterweight. The teachers’ union quietly passed a resolution calling for term limits to be submitted for a new referendum—the thrust of a bill proposed by leading council dissenters Bill de Blasio and Tish James. The union never even issued a press release on it. The battlefield was left to the Working Families Party, of which the teachers are influential members. The WFP mounted a valiant campaign with a tiny budget. It had $50,000 for a TV ad buy opposing the mayor. Last year, the teachers’ union spent $2.1 million on its Albany lobbying alone.

Labor’s loudest voices at the hearings were in mayoral lockstep. Leaders of the building trades talked about how good Bloomberg has been for construction jobs. The uniformed municipal union leaders repeated in tandem the mayor’s mantra that regular elections are the real term limits. Unmentioned were recent generous contracts or the ones now pending. AWOL from the scene was the biggest municipal workers’ group, District Council 37. The union’s city contract is currently being negotiated.

Only plucky Arthur Cheliotes, leader of Local 1180’s city administrative workers, stepped forward to defend labor’s honor. Cheliotes looked lonely as he waited hours to speak. “The mayor has cleverly gamed the system by not letting term limits get on the ballot this November,” he said when he finally testified.

By the way, did you know that dissident labor leaders keep getting killed in Uribe’s Colombia?

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The Truth Behind Troopergate

The only news in New York politics that’s mattered for three months (and counting) is the bizarre hype surrounding the ho-hum charge that new white-knight governor Eliot Spitzer tried to plant a story about Senate Republican leader Joe Bruno’s state-subsidized travel.

After decades of editorial-page barking in every newspaper in the state about the cesspool Albany has become, it was doubtless surprising to learn that the town’s biggest scandal—deplored on one tabloid cover after another—was the alleged fixing of a few paragraphs, not in the fine print of a billion-dollar contract or in a pork-barrel add-on to the state budget, but in a front-page story this July in the capital’s premier daily, the Times Union.

As most people know by now, Spitzer’s aides had convinced the state police to cough up Bruno’s embarrassing travel itineraries, which showed the senate leader hustling from private sit-downs with campaign donors and lobbyists to fundraising extravaganzas on the taxpayer dime. But what generated all the fuss were accusations that Spitzer’s men had improperly used the state police as pawns in a political hit job. Polls indicate that most New Yorkers believe the governor knew more than he’s admitted about his aides and their media maneuvers, but those polls also show that two-thirds of New Yorkers want state leaders to get back to real business, instinctively recognizing what it’s taken three separate investigations to establish—namely that this much-ballyhooed “Troopergate” might be nothing more than bad manners or rough play. Only 12 percent in the latest Siena poll thought the Spitzer-Bruno spat was the “top priority” issue facing the state. In fact, my dentist asked the other day (as I sat immobilized in the chair ) whether it wasn’t a good thing for Spitzer to be telling taxpayers that the senate leader was using a state helicopter to fly to fat-cat galas in Manhattan—a point of view that might provoke many nods of agreement, even by someone without a drill in his mouth.

Few New Yorkers are innocent enough to believe that politicians don’t routinely scour the landscape for dirt to dish on other politicians—especially ones who have called them, as Bruno did to Spitzer before the travel story, a “thug,” a “bully,” a “hypocrite,” and a “rich spoiled brat.” In fact, as the report by Albany District Attorney David Soares recently revealed, it was Bruno who started the ball rolling on travel scandals by denouncing a Spitzer fundraising trip to California in May, which prompted reporters to ask if the governor had used a state plane. The answer was no, but eyebrows soon arched when, just two days later, Bruno himself climbed aboard a state helicopter to fly off to a Manhattan fundraiser for the state GOP. When the Times Union pressed Spitzer communications chief Darren Dopp about that trip and another Bruno junket to a fundraiser on May 17, Dopp began collecting flight manifests and other documents—about both Bruno’s and Spitzer’s trips—in anticipation of a Freedom of Information Letter (FOIL) that he expected to receive from the paper.

But Dopp’s subsequent efforts to issue a press release or refer the Bruno flight information to investigators were nixed by his superiors, according to Soares. As shocking as it might seem, Spitzer involved himself in his staff’s anti-Bruno machinations only long enough to say that he thought any use by his office of the flight itineraries “would be an unnecessary distraction”; he did not direct either the gathering or the release of the travel documents. When Dopp finally got a FOIL, he decided himself to give the accumulated schedules to the
Times Union, and so the war began.

Soares concluded, like Attorney General Andrew Cuomo and Inspector General Kristine Hamann before him, that there was nothing illegal—much less criminal—about all of the heavy breathing over Bruno going on in some quarters of the Spitzer administration. A no-slouch prosecutor who forced the resignation of State Comptroller Alan Hevesi earlier this year, Soares went a step further, telling reporters: “I do not believe there was a plot to smear Senator Bruno.” He added that a continuation of the apparently endless exploitation of this crimeless controversy would be a “blatant attempt to avoid responsibility for the people’s business.”

The district attorney was clearly referring to the senate’s announcement of a half-million-dollar investigation of its own, contracted to a Republican hit man from Washington, D.C., former federal prosecutor Joseph diGenova. Soares was no doubt also aware that the senate investigations committee—which never conducted a single probe into the dozen or so major scandals of the Pataki administration—would be hosting its third pointlessly partisan hearing about the Spitzer administration’s supposed abuse of the state police within days of his report, and was promising much more to come. Compare that hyperactivity to the time, a couple of years ago, when Bruno and the committee simply shrugged their shoulders after it was revealed that the most powerful official in the state police—a lifelong friend of the then Republican governor’s—had taken the Fifth Amendment to every question put to him in a federal probe of the sale of paroles for campaign contributions.

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Just as there’s no sign that Bruno, whose senate majority has shrunk to two seats, will let his Spitzer jihad go, so too with the hyperventilating New York Post, whose favorite state political party is facing an Armageddon of sorts in the 2008 senate elections. The Paper of Rancor—which has printed such sourceless front-page fantasies as a breathless account of Spitzer aides meeting in dark limousines parked on the side of the road in the dead of night to avoid detection by investigators—buried Soares’s findings behind another loopy Brady Bunch sex spoof.


As thin as the scandal itself has proven to be, the story behind it is a window into the new Albany, which Eliot Spitzer promised would change on day one, and which is convulsing—in a way that’s like nothing I’ve ever seen in 30 years of covering the state capital—over the first real challenge to its insider-party game in modern history. Spitzer’s determination to take the senate away from the party that has controlled it for all but six months of the last 80 years is an electroshock to the state’s political culture—disturbing not just to New York’s Republican remnant, but even to the assembly Democrats, who, like prior governors of both parties, have protected and prospered from a divided legislature. What we are hearing in the high-pitched posturing over this scandal is the death wail of an incestuous bipartisan combine, threatened by a governor who starts his day with a 5 a.m. run and who knows, after eight years as attorney general and nine months as governor, what it takes to push his taut frame through a stiff Albany wind.


The man who turned what might have been a bruising but quick street fight into a protracted cold war is Albany’s other new face, Andrew Cuomo, who was elected attorney general last year by promising to replicate Spitzer’s eight-year record in that office. It is Cuomo’s 53-page report on these dueling charges, released July 23, that is still framing this controversy.

Cuomo is an unmistakably awkward fit for a probe of these particular charges, since his own family has long been intimately associated with allegations of abusing state-aircraft privileges, and since he’s achieved something of a reputation himself as a master at the art of shadowy handouts to reporters.

Twenty-five years ago, at the age of 25, the Kid Wonder managed Mario Cuomo’s triumphant gubernatorial campaign, helping his father to push an incumbent Democratic governor (Hugh Carey) out of the race early; then to defeat, in the September primary, a New York City mayor (Ed Koch) who once led the polls by 25 points; and finally to overcome a death-penalty-advocating, multimillionaire Republican candidate (Lew Lehrman) in the general election that November. When it was all over, young Andrew became a “special adviser” to the governor, got a degree at Albany Law School, and became so immersed in the state’s freewheeling political culture that he, his mother, or his siblings rode the friendly skies in state aircraft—without the governor—a total of 62 times in the first seven years of the 12-year administration. One or more members of the family rode with the governor more than 700 times in the same period—after which time, no comprehensive accounting of the family airline ever appeared.

The Daily News did break an “Air Cuomo” story in the 1994 gubernatorial campaign, revealing that over the course of a single year, the governor’s wife and daughter had taken a combined 44 trips. A year after Cuomo lost, he settled a lawsuit brought by the state GOP and paid thousands to the state for his family’s high-flying excesses. Ironically, Mario Cuomo also used the state aircraft to cement his cross-party alliance with Ralph Marino, who preceded Bruno as senate majority leader. Former Air Force colonel Karl Rodenhauser, who ran the state fleet under Cuomo, says now that the governor’s chief of staff approved standby weekly flights for Marino, who was flown to Farmingdale, Long Island, where he lived and maintained a law practice, as soon as the senate session ended. Marino was such a Cuomo crony that he tried to block George Pataki’s 1994 nomination, supporting a candidate who’d lost to Cuomo four years earlier by 33 points.

Stan Lundine, lieutenant governor for eight years under Cuomo, recalls the Marino shuttle, as well as the Cuomos’ frequent-flier pattern. “Did we ever schedule a fundraiser and then come up with cover events to justify the use of a state plane?” he asks, addressing the question that Bruno’s use of the aircraft has raised. “Sure. But I don’t think we ever took a plane just to a political event.” Lundine also sees the quandary Andrew faced in this investigation. “If he had arrived at a different conclusion,” he says, referring to the attorney general’s decision that Bruno’s flights weren’t improper, “he would have been subject to scrutiny because of his and Governor Cuomo’s use of the plane.”

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In fact, the travel charges against the Cuomos didn’t end in 1994. Shortly after Andrew Cuomo announced his unsuccessful campaign for governor in January 2001, it was revealed that, as the secretary for Housing and Urban Development in the Clinton administration, he’d billed the federal government for 25 trips to New York in 2000—21 more visits than he made to any other state. He’d also taken a $6,000 junket to Israel—all ostensibly to prepare for his race for governor. However, neither that record, nor the “Air Cuomo” story, got in the way of Andrew attacking George Pataki for exploiting state aircraft in that campaign: “You cannot justify, ethically or legally, using taxpayer dollars to finance your political travel,” he charged in 2001.

Young Andrew also earned his spurs in the 1980s as a source for negative news stories. He was heard bragging—by none other than Bill Stern, Mario Cuomo’s campaign-finance chair and economic-development czar—about “the contract hits” on opponents that he planted with enthralled reporters. “I heard him talk about it,” says Stern, who worked in the 1982 campaign headquarters and in state government with Andrew. “The idea is to embarrass a person. He used it as a weapon against political enemies—or it might be used against your friends who were out of line. ‘Contract hit’ was a regular part of his lingo. He believed others did it, and that he was very good at it.” (Cuomo’s spokesman said that he’d never heard of the term, though Stern has been talking to the Voice about examples of Cuomo “hits” since 1984.)


With that kind of a track record, Cuomo might have thought twice about plunging into this thicket, especially since he’d been receiving unprecedented praise in
the New York media for an extraordinary student-loan inquiry and other high- profile investigations. Instead, he jumped into the probe soon after the Times Union story appeared, nudged privately by Spitzer and asked formally by Bruno. Not only did he rush to launch the probe, but he finished it in only 20 days, with eight or nine investigators working around the clock. No one can offer a convincing reason for this extraordinary rapidity, other than to cite the office’s claim that “faster was
better.”

In the wake of the report, the Post and others loudly complained that Cuomo hadn’t interviewed Dopp and another top Spitzer aide involved in the Bruno travel review. Cuomo fed the conspiracy hysteria by saying that they’d refused to cooperate. The truth is that Cuomo’s office didn’t even ask to interview them until the business day before it released the report. When Spitzer’s counsel said that the two preferred to submit brief sworn statements, Cuomo didn’t insist or even go public about their reticence: He just rushed to release the report—flush with scathing criticism of the Spitzer team—on a Monday morning, the optimum timing if you’re trying to jump-start the news cycle. Subsequent events suggest that had Cuomo been willing to wait, Dopp and company would have appeared to answer questions. When Dopp’s attorney refused in early September to turn over some documents sought by another group of investigators still looking into this mess—from the state’s public-integrity commission—a one-day deluge of stories and outraged editorials changed his mind, and he quickly gave the commission everything it wanted.

In any case, the result of Cuomo’s rush to glory was a botched job.

He was supposed to examine both Bruno’s possible aircraft abuse and Spitzer’s alleged misuse of the state police, but his report doesn’t mention the Bruno flights until page 44, and it spends almost as much space suggesting how to reform aircraft regulations—written, by the way, by his own father—as it does examining the senator’s trips. While virtually everyone associated with the Spitzer administration was put under oath, including eight employees of the state police, only one of at least 18 people interviewed about Bruno was asked to give sworn testimony. Most of the Spitzer witnesses are named in the report, while none of the people interviewed about Bruno are identified. Indeed, Cuomo’s office and Bruno still refuse to name the scheduler, the only witness from Bruno’s office to take the oath.

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For all the hoopla that resulted over Dopp not being questioned, no one has asked why top Bruno aides like Ed Lurie were never interviewed (Lurie is so political that he runs Bruno’s senate campaign committee and joined him for at least one flight). And as outraged as the Post has been about the failure of Spitzer’s staff to turn over their private e-mails to Cuomo (they did turn them over to Soares), no one’s even noticed that the attorney general never asked Bruno or his aides for any e-mails. If, as Stan Lundine’s experience suggests, last-minute state business meetings were set up to cover the senator’s long-planned junkets to Sheraton fundraisers, and if Bruno’s aides discussed that in e-mails, Cuomo apparently didn’t want to know.

In fact, though Cuomo’s report indicates that he knew when the meetings were arranged, it never divulges the timing, making it impossible for reporters and the public to figure out if those meetings were shams. Instead, Cuomo simply asserts that there was a legitimate state purpose for every one of the 10 trips Bruno took on state aircraft in the first six months of 2007. Just as Bruno has refused to reveal any of the details about these meetings, Cuomo’s report respects the senate leader’s preference for secrecy, even as his report reveals every exchange that occurred on the Spitzer side. John McArdle, Bruno’s spokesman, told the Voice that Cuomo’s lack of specificity about the meetings was “perfectly understandable,” adding that there was “no need to make legislative meetings public”—an unsurprising Bruno rejection of transparency that Cuomo apparently shares.

The rationale given by the attorney general’s office for its half-hearted probe of the Bruno trips is that the regulations on “mixed” state and personal business flights were so “permissive” that it was almost impossible to violate them, so why bother looking too hard? Cuomo’s investigators, however, failed to examine any of the overnight flights that Bruno took—at least two of which apparently required the state police to send a second helicopter down to the city the next day to pick him up and return him to Albany. Colonel Rodenhauser explained that the state aircraft routinely spends the night in an Albany hangar, meaning that two $6,000 round trips almost certainly occurred each time Bruno attended those evening Republican fundraisers on May 3 and May 17 and flew back to Albany the next morning. Since Bruno’s last business meeting was at 5 p.m. on May 17, and he had no meetings of any kind scheduled downstate on May 18, the sole reason for the second round trip was political-—a fact that neither Cuomo’s nor Bruno’s spokesmen contest. This appears to directly violate even the “porous guidelines” promulgated by Mario Cuomo and ratified later by an unofficial state ethics opinion.


That second overnight trip is also troubling. Bruno did have a 9 a.m. meeting at Aqueduct, the racing track in Queens, on May 4, the day after he attended a gala for the state GOP. But New York Racing Association chair Charles Hayward says Bruno asked to be taken on a tour of the facility that morning, just four days after the track ended its spring season, and the NYRA had to reopen a closed facility to accommodate him. The strange timing—it might be smarter to see a track possibly slated for mothballing when it was actually operating—suggests that the tour was deliberately arranged to dovetail with the trip Bruno already had planned for the party extravaganza. The 1995 ethics opinion requires that such trips-—including the second round trip made on May 4—must be for a “bona fide” state purpose.

Overnights aside, there was no reason to limit the probe to these 10 trips, especially if you wanted to determine whether there was a pattern of abuse on Bruno’s part. A 2001 story said that he had used state aircraft 157 times since becoming majority leader in late 1994—10 times more than the assembly speaker.

Had Cuomo looked into this history, he might have found violations of law and the legal justification to obtain subpoena power for the probe. Instead, with Bruno’s support, he has claimed after the fact that the Spitzer-appointed inspector general should have withdrawn from the investigation and referred it to Cuomo alone. That referral, they argue, would have transferred the inspector general’s subpoena power in a “corruption” case like this to the attorney general, who otherwise doesn’t have it.

But Cuomo clearly does have subpoena power in any tax investigation—yet he chose, curiously, to ignore that inviting investigative trail. For even if Bruno’s use of the aircraft met the state’s minimal regulatory standards, as Cuomo concluded, it might well have been inconsistent with IRS requirements.

State travel guidelines say that a trip has to include at least one meeting involving a governmental purpose. But as Mario Cuomo’s press secretary explained when news stories appeared about his flights, a 1985 IRS ruling “required that Cuomo and his family pay taxes on the value of trips that weren’t made primarily for state business.” (Emphasis added.) From 1985 through 1989, for example, the Cuomos were taxed on $22,686 worth of personal travel paid for by taxpayers under the provisions for “imputed income.” In 1993, Mario Cuomo reported $5,660 in private trips on state aircraft and paid a third of that in taxes. But Bruno press secretary McArdle told the Voice flatly: “No, the senator didn’t pay taxes.” McArdle also used precisely the same word as Mario Cuomo’s press secretary did an eon ago, insisting that the trips were “ primarily for legislative business.” But Andrew Cuomo’s report rebuts any claim that Bruno’s trips were first and foremost for legislative reasons. “On several occasions,” Cuomo found, based only on an examination of this handful of Bruno excursions, “the legislative business constituted a minor portion of the day’s schedule.”

[

Had Cuomo simply applied the same tax standard that was used for the flights his father had made, he could have gained subpoena power for the probe, and perhaps identified illegal (if not criminal) actions by Bruno.

As tough as it was to pry on-the-record answers from Cuomo’s office, spokesman Jeff Lerner, fully apprised of the details of this critique, did offer this response: “If you were in a room with everyone from the DA’s office, the AG’s office, the IG’s office, and the governor’s office, Wayne Barrett—and Wayne Barrett alone—would be the only one who still believes, or ever believed, that Bruno’s use of the state aircraft was illegal.” Bruno’s aide McArdle echoed Lerner, dismissing any notion that the overnight trips, for example, might be inconsistent with the regulations, which he said was “corroborated by the AG, IG, and Albany DA’s office.” While McArdle omitted the governor in his list of defense witnesses, Lerner’s e-mail stressed Spitzer’s apparent view of the legality of the flights, stringing together a series of quotes in the Soares report from the governor and two top aides. Actually, Soares wrote that Spitzer “informed Dopp that the law was so porous and, as such, Senator Bruno’s acts were probably not illegal.” It was, like that of the two aides, a first-flush reaction.

A third Spitzer aide—whom Lerner, not surprisingly, doesn’t mention—had a different take. Presented with the same Bruno itineraries, Peter Pope, an experienced prosecutor who is the governor’s director of policy and led the attorney general’s investigation into Alan Hevesi, says the office “had an obligation to report this matter to the inspector general.” Indeed, Kristine Hamann, when she conducted her eventual inquiry simultaneous with Cuomo’s, never did much of an assessment of Bruno’s travel, obviously aware that as a Spitzer appointee, she should take a back seat to the independent probe of Cuomo’s staff. No one has made the point more loudly than Bruno that the inspector general did little. And Soares devotes a single sentence in his report to Bruno’s flights, saying simply that his office reviewed the aircraft use and “concurred” with Cuomo and Hamann “that no crime occurred.”

Obviously, Soares limited himself to criminal matters in his examination of Spitzer’s use of the state police, and he did the same with Bruno’s trips. He left the door open on both lines of inquiry as to whether anything improper, unethical, or even illegal occurred (and he, too, apparently failed to consider the tax implications). The state’s public-integrity commission, which undertook its own investigation weeks ago and is taking testimony now, will resolve the ethics question on the Spitzer charges. But since it is limited by law to probing executive misconduct, the commission is barred from looking at anything Bruno did. (A separate body, called the legislative ethics commission, has the exclusive power to probe senate or assembly wrongdoing. Controlled by the legislature, it has never shown a flicker of interest in this or any other possible wrongdoing. )


The fact is that, when all this is over, the Spitzer administration will have had to weather three independent probes, relentless senate hearings, and a tepid look into the matter by its own inspector general, while no one will have ever genuinely examined the senator’s junkets, even though it is Bruno who is being probed by the FBI for collusive conflicts, and has been since 2006. This double standard will continue because the public-integrity commission has the almost impossible job of determining whether Spitzer and his staff tried to smear Bruno without ever crossing the legal line of its authority and determining whether Bruno did abuse his aircraft privileges. Though the Spitzer media campaign can’t be a smear if Bruno was in fact living large on the public tab, the commission isn’t allowed to consider the evidence that might buttress that case.

[

The professionals, like former federal prosecutor Linda Lacewell, who worked on the Cuomo report, were no doubt genuinely offended by what they found—particularly what they saw as the misleading of the state police superintendent, Preston Felton, by Spitzer aide Bill Howard. The worst of the Spitzer-administration misconduct identified in the Cuomo report is the charge that Howard convinced Felton to produce the flight records by telling him that he had a FOIL well before the Times Union submitted one. But a close reading of the attorney general’s report says only that “at some point,” Howard “apparently” told Felton about the FOIL—strangely uncertain language for so central a conclusion. And Howard, who did talk extensively and without counsel to Cuomo’s office, is quoted in the Soares report as saying that he thought Dopp wanted the flight information only for internal review. He says he didn’t mention a FOIL to Felton—a version of events that is at odds with Felton’s recollection. Assuming that Howard told Cuomo’s staff the same thing, it’s odd their report never mentions the denial. Soares also found no evidence that anyone in the executive chamber had any idea that Felton was operating under the misconception that he was checking these flights to service a phantom FOIL. Indeed, Felton didn’t put all the records together in a package until the FOIL was actually received in late June. As trivial as this detail might seem, it’s actually the heart of the alleged wrongdoing.

The other oft-repeated charge is that the state police “recreated” the itineraries, which was the loaded language used in Cuomo’s report. The term suggests fabrication, though even Cuomo acknowledged that nothing was fabricated. “Recreation is a term of art,” Glenn Valle, the state police counsel, told a senate committee last week, explaining that there would be nothing wrong with the police “retrieving” information they had. The itineraries on the Bruno trips that Dopp gave the Times Union were drawn from handwritten police notes that were, in Soares’s view, subject to public disclosure. Valle said the police “simply filled in those itineraries” and “restored information.” Valle, who was the counsel throughout the Pataki years and thus can’t be considered a Spitzer tool, disputed the Bruno defense that challenged the validity of the police records and the decision to make them public: “How do you smear someone by reporting exactly what they did?”

Incredibly, Valle’s charges—including his denunciation of Cuomo’s report as “outright wrong” and “extremely unfair”—got short shrift in the tabloids that are driving the story. Similarly, no one knows better than the press that it is commonplace for government agencies to assemble records like this when they are sought by reporters, and that Cuomo’s attempt to characterize it as an illicit manufacture of documents is absurd.

It’s impossible to diagnose the reasons why Cuomo leaped to such shaky and tilted conclusions, although his disastrously premature run for governor in 2002 revealed how determined he is to succeed his father. He clearly wants to run for the top job again—maybe not as soon as 2010, but certainly by 2014, and he will do so even if Spitzer tries to make himself our third three-term governor in a row. If that sounds speculative, remember that Mario Cuomo emerged as a gubernatorial candidate well before the governor he worked for, Hugh Carey, announced that he wasn’t seeking re-election in 1982.

Strangely, the only person already promoting a Cuomo candidacy is Joe Bruno, who told The New York Sun recently: “If I had to guess, someone like Andrew, who is positioned where he is at this stage of his life, at his age and background and experience, he’ll be a candidate.” Bruno went on to say that Cuomo is “very personable, very bright, extremely articulate, he’s a pretty good package”—and also someone who would be more productive than the current governor. “We would get a lot of stuff done,” Bruno said, adding that when Spitzer was attorney general, he “didn’t scratch the surface” compared to Cuomo.

The seminal moment in the war between Spitzer and Bruno was the February
election of Craig Johnson to a senate seat in Long Island. Johnson won a
seat held by the GOP for decades, a crushing defeat for Bruno as well as for
SEIU 1199, the all-powerful health and hospital workers’ union, which spent
a fortune to mobilize an army for Bruno in suburban streets. Not only did
Spitzer win that special election, his appointment of the district’s
Republican incumbent to a key post in his administration created the vacancy
Johnson filled. Then Spitzer began entertaining vulnerable members of
Bruno’s senate conference, particularly upstate senator John Bonacic, trying
either to get them to switch parties or to take a job in his government,
creating another winnable vacancy. Asked if this happened, McCardle said:
“It did happen, and is continuing to happen as we speak.” The Times
reported last week that the wooing of Bonacic was still going on, and that
Bonacic introduced Spitzer at a recent fundraiser.

[

Eliot Spitzer is the only New York governor in modern history to try to take a legislative body away from the party that controls it. His predecessors, like Mario Cuomo, never raised money or recruited candidates for a serious campaign of change. Even more important than Spitzer’s eagerness to do both is the high probability that he will succeed, partly because registration changes and national politics could make 2008 a big year for Democrats in this state. No one has to look any further than those threatening realities to understand why such a small dustup has been elevated to such a consuming conflict. The Republicans are trying to depict Spitzer as a tyrant who will use police powers to silence or defeat them, and they couldn’t be happier to have someone with the most famous Democratic name in the state—Cuomo—as their witness and cheerleader. Cuomo had many honorable alternatives to the report he issued and the behind-the-scenes role he continues to play to juice up this farce. He senses that he may have overplayed his hand, but he is more concerned with saving face than rebuilding bridges. Having acted too quickly, he may now have to live with the consequences for too long, unable to transcend them despite all the other good work his office is doing. Spitzer, for one, is unlikely to forget what Cuomo has done.

The governor has already been more contrite than the missteps of his aides require. But Bruno has been making it clear for months that there will be no detente or progress on a host of other issues unless Spitzer accepts the bipartisan turf treaty that is the foundation of legislative life in a capital with a hundred billion dollars to distribute. If Spitzer doesn’t bow to that presumption (and there is every indication that he won’t), the Albany culture will continue to hound him—including many Democrats who, like Bruno, see any fundamental change in the state power dynamic as a dagger in their chests.

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1977

  • The Voice unionizes. Employees vote to accept the first labor contract between employees and management. Employees are now represented by District 65 of the Distributive Workers of America (now part of the United Auto Workers Union).
  • Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. buys majority stake in New York Magazine Company, the Voice‘s parent company, in a deal with major stockholders. Fifty-seven editors, writers and photographers sign a statement of protest.
  • The Village Voice names William J. Ryan president and CEO and Steven Blacker is named Publisher.
  • Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols is named best album in the Pazz & Jop Music Critics poll.
  • Danny Aiello wins the Obie Award for best performance for his role in Gemini.
  • The Village Voice endorses Mario Cuomo for Governor.
  • Studio 54 opens at the height of disco fever; John Travolta dances off in Saturday Night Fever.
  • A citywide blackout caused by a lightening strike results in massive chaos, costing the city more than $300 million. More than 1,600 stores are damaged in looting and rioting, 1,000 fires burn, and 3,776 people are arrested in the largest mass arrest in city history.
  • Serial killer David Berkowitz, better known as the Son of Sam, is arrested outside his Yonkers apartment. He is sentenced to 365 years in prison for the killing of six people and wounding of several others.
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    Spoils System

    Brooklyn’s well-oiled courthouse patronage machine has functioned so long and so smoothly that its rewards have quietly reached some prominent and unlikely players. Take Mario Cuomo.

    New York has had no clearer foe of the system of choosing judges by election than Cuomo. The former three-term governor, who once declined a presidential invitation to seek a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court, never missed an opportunity to call for merit selection of judicial candidates, instead of the all but blind elections by which jurists are now chosen. When Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes announced his grand jury probe into the borough’s judge-picking system at a press conference last April, he invoked Cuomo’s name along with his own as an inveterate advocate of allowing public officials, guided by panels of experts, to select who gets to sit on the bench.

    Cuomo, who worked as a lawyer on Brooklyn’s Court Street before rising to elective office, knows the system’s merits and demerits from both sides. And on one occasion, a few years after he lost re-election to George Pataki in 1994, he shared in the spoils from the same political machine that’s now under intense scrutiny from both Hynes’s investigators and the press.

    The occasion arose after two competing wings of Brooklyn’s Democratic Party waged a costly and nasty electoral battle in 1996 over who would succeed Cuomo’s old friend and former aide, Bernard Bloom, as judge of Brooklyn’s Surrogate’s Court. Cuomo backed Michael Feinberg, a product of Bloom’s old political club. He did so, Cuomo said last week, at the urging of “friends who practice law in Brooklyn.” He could not recall whether or not one of those friends was Fabian Palomino, a Cuomo intimate of 45 years and former aide who served as one of Feinberg’s election lawyers and, after the election, became counsel to the lawyer in charge of handling cases for the public administrator, the office which deals with estates pending before the Surrogate’s Court.

    Palomino needed the work. After Cuomo’s defeat, he took tough hits from the incoming Pataki regime and the press for his performance in the post in which Cuomo had installed him, chief of the Javits Convention Center, where the mob enjoyed a powerful grip on the trades that set up and took down shows, making business difficult and expensive for exhibitors. Palomino said he had no memory of asking Cuomo to back Feinberg. “I don’t recall doing that,” he said.

    Cuomo never campaigned for Feinberg, he pointed out last week. He said he “may have made a small contribution through a political action committee that I control.” Records show the donation was $500, made on March 21, 1996, from the Friends of Mario M. Cuomo Committee. It was a small amount in a campaign that raised hundreds of thousands of dollars. Nevertheless, a few months after Feinberg took office, the new judge called the former governor, saying he wanted him to serve as temporary receiver overseeing a $1 million fund.

    The money was part of a huge estate, worth $32 million, that had been bequeathed by a wealthy businessman to an Orthodox yeshiva. Factions in the Lubavitcher Hasidic community in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights were battling over its control, and Feinberg turned to Cuomo as a disinterested outsider to oversee expenditures to the school, where teachers and vendors hadn’t been paid in months.

    Over the ensuing months, Cuomo proceeded to do what court-appointed receivers are supposed to do—pay appropriate expenses and carefully record his actions. When he was finished spending the money, Cuomo also did what receivers do, which was to apply to the court for a fee to reimburse his efforts. In this case, Cuomo asked for $50,000 for himself—the maximum five percent allowed by law—and an additional $51,000 for his law firm, Willkie Farr & Gallagher, whose junior associates had handled much of the day to day administrative tasks, according to records Cuomo submitted to the court. This brought a quick objection from one of the factions in the case who said the $101,000 package was far too large, particularly since most of the work had been done by subordinates, not by the former governor.

    “[T]he temporary receiver appears to have performed only a minimal amount of the work necessary to satisfy the terms and conditions of the Court’s orders, while the majority of the work was performed by another individual,” wrote Andrew Fisher, an attorney with his own powerful courthouse connections, in a March 2000 memo to the Surrogate’s Court.

    Judge Feinberg took the matter under advisement and then settled it in his own fashion. He awarded Cuomo the full $50,000 he had requested for himself, but reduced Willkie Farr’s portion to just $15,000.

    “I didn’t do it for the fee,” said Cuomo about the matter last week. “I was trying to be helpful. I give speeches and make more money than that. They had an awful internecine struggle there. I knew this community well. The point was to be a mediator.”

    Moreover, large firms like his, Cuomo said, “don’t welcome these sorts of appointments. Their rates are so high; that’s why I don’t accept a lot of these things.”

    Still, Cuomo’s receivership was one of the largest awarded that year by Brooklyn’s Surrogate’s Court, and, given the fame of the recipient, one of the most talked about among the lawyers who work along Court Street. The legal aspect of Cuomo’s role in the matter—although not the patronage connection—was reported in stories in the Daily News and the New York Law Journal. Yet, three months after Cuomo’s appointment, when the New York Post launched a tough, multi-part series in November 1997 called “Kings County Princes of Patronage,” lambasting the appointments by Surrogate’s Court and other Brooklyn judges, the ex-governor’s dealings somehow went unmentioned.

    The Post‘s articles were in many ways a precursor to the current crop of scandal stories. Feinberg was a key focus, as was his supporter, Brooklyn Democratic Party boss Clarence Norman. They pointed to the network of Norman favorites who regularly received big consulting fees from judicial candidates, a pattern now under close scrutiny by the D.A. The stories also pointed out that of Feinberg’s first 63 appointments, more than half went to lawyers who donated money to his campaign or the Democratic Party. The Post named more than two dozen of these, singling out far less known figures than Cuomo, many of whom donated less and received smaller receiverships, including a lawyer on the staff of the city council who got what the stories tabbed as “one of [Feinberg’s] most lucrative appointments—worth $3,500.”

    “They are part of the web of patronage and cronyism Feinberg wove during his 1996 election,” the article stated.

    The Post stayed on the courthouse perks story over the following months, running occasional pieces. In January 2000, the paper tackled the subject again in earnest, this time branching out to other boroughs as well and naming a “patronage dirty dozen” including former mayor Ed Koch, ex-congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro, and then-Council Speaker Peter Vallone, all of whom received court appointments worth far less than Cuomo’s.

    Some people concluded, not unreasonably, that Cuomo’s name never made the Post articles because the coverage was headed by veteran journalist Jack Newfield, who has reported on courthouse patronage practices for decades and is also a close and longtime friend of Cuomo’s. From having worked closely with Newfield at the Voice and at the Daily News, I know he has never hidden his ties to Cuomo. His position at the time was that he was too close to the politician to write fairly about him.

    Asked why Cuomo’s well-paid receivership was never raised in the series, Newfield said he thought it had been. “I know we talked about it. We discussed it. I think it did appear.” But a check of clips shows no such story. Other reporters who worked on the series also recalled discussion of the governor’s Surrogate’s Court dealings but said they didn’t recall what had happened when it came to reporting it.

    Cuomo said his omission was proper.

    “If it was a list of patronage people and people who got awarded because of their contacts, then I didn’t belong on it,” Cuomo said.

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    Why Did Spitzer Defend Pataki?

    Michael Rebell, the attorney who spearheaded the 10-year-old lawsuit to overturn the state’s discriminatory school-aid formula, went to a New York Bar Association gathering in April to hear his longtime adversary, Attorney General Eliot Spitzer. Rebell was then nervously awaiting the Court of Appeals decision that came down last week, striking the formula by a 4-to-1 vote, and he could not resist the opportunity to ask his longtime opponent Spitzer about the case. He’d wondered for years why Spitzer was taking positions in court that seemed so contrary to his larger public profile.

    “He was speaking about his Wall Street cases,” Rebell recalls, “so I just asked him, since he was such a liberal crusader on those issues, ‘How do you justify backing the governor in the school case?’ He just gave me the standard answer that he had a constitutional duty to defend the state.” Rebell says he has long found it “incongruous” that Spitzer’s decision to represent George Pataki in this suit has drawn so little criticism, adding that he “was never convinced that Spitzer was required” to do so.

    In fact, Bob Abrams, who was AG from 1978 to 1993, infuriated Governor Mario Cuomo by refusing to defend the state on everything from Westway (a development plan for the West Side) to sports betting to the cleanup of toxic dump sites. Louis Lefkowitz, who preceded Abrams, did the same, declining to represent the Carey administration on Westway. In an object lesson for Spitzer, Cuomo was so incensed by what he branded Abrams’s “weathervane representation” that he told the Times that if the AG “did not want to take on such cases,” he “might not need as big a budget as he has.” That threat provoked Abrams’s spokesman to point out that all six attempts since 1846 to make the AG an appointive office had failed.

    “The Attorney General is sworn to uphold the constitution,” the Abrams spokesman said, “and he has an obligation to be independent and to exercise independent judgment.”

    Rebell, whose Committee for Fiscal Equity brought the suit when Cuomo was still governor, puts it in classic attorney-client terms. “If you have a disagreement with a client, an attorney can’t go forward with a case,” he argues. Rebell believes that when Spitzer took office in January 1999—having inherited the case from Dennis Vacco, the Republican AG he defeated—he “had to decide what position to take as to the constitutionality of the formula.” That was “the most logical point,” says Rebell, for Spitzer to back out, if only by informing the governor that “my reading of the state constitution” doesn’t permit this defense.

    “A lawyer tells his client what the law says,” Rebell observes, and if he and his client have a fundamentally different view, the client gets another lawyer. That’s why Cuomo and Hugh Carey wound up represented by private attorneys in the Westway litigation.

    Recalling the dispute with Abrams, Cuomo says that “nobody wants a lawyer who doesn’t want to handle a case,” including governors. Cuomo’s counsel researched Abrams’ refusals—looking at precedents that “went back to Governor Averell Harriman” in the 1950s—and Cuomo says now that the AG “definitively has the option to opt out” and “the governor can refuse to turn to the AG” if they differ.

    Joseph Wayland, the Simpson Thatcher partner who argued the case for Rebell’s committee pro bono, contends that “early on there were approaches to Spitzer,” but nothing happened. “I urged him on a number of occasions to rethink the state’s litigation strategy. I think there were opportunities for political leadership available to him and the governor and the legislature, and they were missed by everyone. I think it’s sad that we had to litigate this case and get the Court of Appeals to say that a high school education is minimally required and that the conditions of NYC schools are inadequate.”

    Wayland was particularly critical of some of the arguments Spitzer’s office made in the case, which he characterized as “completely antagonistic” and “extreme,” such as the contention that students are class-bound captives of their socioeconomic status. Steve Sanders, chair of the assembly’s education committee, echoed Wayland, saying he “told Spitzer’s people that there were witnesses for the state who wouldn’t even help them, who suggested that kids failed based on the educable nature of their race.” Sanders said his objections “ruffled some feathers in the AG’s office” but that he thought “that kind of analysis being placed on the record was offensive.”

    One Spitzer witness that Sanders particularly assailed was David Armor, an “expert” cheered by David Duke and paid $250,000 by the AG to testify that there wasn’t “much that can be done to overcome the gaps between the poor and nonpoor.” The subject of a Voice profile (“Pataki’s Poster Boy,” August 7, 2002), Armor is so controversial that one federal appeals panel found that he “simply does not accept the Supreme Court’s view of injuries and stigma” found in the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education integration case. Armor’s statistical contention, adopted in Spitzer’s briefs and the appellate decision last year that temporarily derailed the school-aid case, was that there was “no significant effect of resources on achievement.”

    Spitzer’s response on these issues, relayed through spokesman Paul Larrabee, is that “it has been his goal not to politicize the office” and that he believes that he “has an obligation to defend the state” except where there is a conflict of interest, such as between branches of government. “While those who came before him and follow may choose to approach this issue in a different manner,” Larrabee concluded, Spitzer will continue his “nonpartisan” handling of state cases. Larrabee also replied to Wayland and Sanders’s concerns about particular arguments Spitzer’s office advanced by contending that the AG “works in consultation with the client to represent their position” and that he attempts “to express their positions as effectively as possible.”

    Asked if that meant that the opinions laid out in the briefs bearing Spitzer’s name in this case did not reflect Spitzer’s point of view, Larrabee said that “the role of an attorney is to advocate on behalf of his client.” Spitzer’s wide-ranging arguments before the Court of Appeals included such gems as “This problem is the result of the city’s collective bargaining agreements, not state funding,” “Preparation for competitive employment cannot possibly be a component of a minimally adequate education,” and “The benefits of smaller class size” are “ambiguous,” all opinions unlikely to be uttered on the 2006 gubernatorial campaign trail.

    Cuomo recalls that when this case of elemental justice was filed—with the city classes averaging five more students than in upstate and suburban districts—he publicly urged the plaintiffs to call him as a witness. He says Spitzer could’ve distanced himself publicly as well. The heroic embodiment of the case, Robert Jackson, the parent plaintiff who has since become a city councilman and recently led a 10-day trudge to Albany to dramatize the appeal, was stunned to hear that Spitzer could’ve chosen to let Pataki find his own counsel. “I think he could have evaluated the case and said, we agree with the plaintiffs and we are not going to represent you,” said Jackson.

    Instead, Spitzer maintained what Larrabee describes as a “good working relationship” with the Pataki team, which ran a nominal and underfunded opponent against him in 2002 despite his razor-thin win four years earlier. While Spitzer has taken in recent months to assailing the governor for the budget deceptions of 2002, he never said a word about the budget during that campaign, even telling the Albany Times-Union a few days before the election, “I don’t do criticizing of Pataki.” The Post observed in 2001 that Spitzer had so “effusively praised” Pataki that he might “want to see him reelected.” It may be that Spitzer’s full-throttle participation in this case was, as Larrabee insists, a matter of apolitical principle. It may also be that it was a decidedly political accommodation to gubernatorial power and ambition.


    Research assistance: Zoe Alsop, Michael Anstendig, Phineas Lambert, Naomi Lindt, Brittany Scheffer, and Jessica Silver-Greenberg

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    How Pataki Won

    When Standard & Poor’s downgraded the state’s bonds from “stable” to “negative” last week, George Pataki was quick to blame it on the legislative budget he’d just unsuccessfully vetoed. In the coming months of continuing financial debacle, expect that to become a gubernatorial mantra.

    Overridden again and again by unanimous votes in a senate controlled by his own party, Pataki has been widely depicted as an out-of-touch loser in the Great Budget War. But that assessment has one fatal flaw: It makes too much sense. The always on-message Pataki—despite how often he utterly reverses the message—is confident that he will emerge from this fiscally criminal fiasco of recurring multibillion-dollar gaps as the only perpetrator with an alibi. “I was out to lunch” is a better place to be, the governor clearly believes, than “I was at the table.”

    This is, after all, an era when a president can do a Top Gun landing on an aircraft carrier, utterly confident that the national media will not even report that he went AWOL from his own Air National Guard duty during the Vietnam War. It’s a time when Unreality TV News can suspend overnight its Hare Krishna-like repetition of a weapons-of-mass-destruction, war-justifying themeas if it never embraced the Bush canard. All Pataki needs in such a moment is a plausible-sounding artifice to escape responsibility—especially nationally, which is the only constituency he currently cares about—for a $12 billion hole he dug and tried to hide from view until he was re-elected.

    He is ready now to take to the stump as the tax cutter who refused—in the face of union-contrived clamor—to hike them even though his own budget raised clothing and hospital taxes. He is positioned as the only man in Albany willing to cut waste, though his budget made no attempt to even locate it, indiscriminately slashing education and Medicaid without so much as a cursory attempt to identify lard. He is set to pin the inevitable deficits on the legislature though his own budget contained $4.2 billion in one-shot borrowing that would’ve left a hole of the same size next year. He will now become, in a paradox fit for the times, Albany’s iron man of fiscal rectitude, refusing to spend some of the legislature’s appropriations, scolding, suing, smirking.

    It may take a governor to understand a governor, so listen to one. Mario Cuomo was lieutenant governor the last time a governor’s budget was overridden, in 1982. After that, he did 12 executive budgets of his own that were affirmed by a legislature as divided by party as the current one. Asked by the Voice whether a governor truly trying to block a joint legislative budget would be best served by corralling enough individual legislators to prevent a veto override before those legislators actually voted for their budget rather than after, as Pataki did, Cuomo said: “Obviously, yes.”

    But Pataki, insists Cuomo, “never wanted his budget adopted” and “wanted to see his vetoes overridden.

    “As a clever politician,” Cuomo says of the man who beat him in 1994, “Pataki sought to work out a way where he wouldn’t have to make the difficult judgments a governor has to make, like doing a budget. So he never did a real budget. He tried to put all the blame on the legislature. If they left it at his budget, the deficits into the future would be at least as large.” Instead of proposing a budget, Cuomo says, Pataki merely adopted “a rhetorical position” designed to appeal to “Republican conservative dogmatists.”

    Fred Dicker, the New York Post‘s bureau chief in Albany, did a May 5 story naming 13 conservative Democratic assembly members “identified by Pataki’s political advisers” who might then have been willing to vote to sustain the governor’s vetoes. All Pataki had to do, the “insiders” told Dicker, was to swing four of them to stop the override, since all but one of the assembly’s 47 Republicans were supporting the governor. Voice calls to the banner-headlined 13 could not turn up a single one who said that Pataki or his staff ever had called (several did not respond to inquiries).

    Assemblyman Richard Smith from Erie County acknowledged that he was part of what he called “the Group of 13,” a caucus of Democrats who “often stress independence from the Democratic majority.” “But the administration did not contact us,” Smith said. “If they had approached us about this, we had worked on the budget for about two months and there was not a ‘For Sale’ sign on my body.” New Rochelle’s Ronald Tocci said the same, as did aides to Robin Schimminger (Erie), Steve Levy (Suffolk), William Scarborough (Queens), and Syracuse’s William Magnarelli.

    Assemblywoman Joan Christensen, also of Syracuse, said: “The governor didn’t call me. Or if he did, he didn’t leave a message on my machine. Would it have made a difference? Not on the override. In fact, there is no exchange between the governor’s office and my office. When I call there, which is not too often, I get referred and referred and referred.” Not only did Staten Island’s John Lavelle say he wasn’t called, but he says he spoke “with all of the other 12 and none were contacted.”

    The assembly member whose comments were most descriptive of Pataki’s NBA-style defensive flop was William Parment, who was labeled in Dicker’s story “a business-friendly sometimes maverick from Jamestown.” Parment told the Voice he was “very unhappy about the legislative budget” and “was a little surprised” that he wasn’t contacted.

    “There was certainly an opportunity to approach me, because I was invited to a prayer breakfast, right around the passage of the budget, where I spoke with the governor,” said Parment. “But he didn’t mention anything about the budget.” After Dicker’s story naming him came out, Parment said he “would not commit to answering questions about whether or not I would override because I was hoping there would be more negotiations.” Waiting by the phone for the call that never came, Parment laments now: “I hoped there would have been some compromise.”

    Dicker himself recently wrote an item suggesting just how bogus Pataki’s supposed veto war was. “I received one message on my cell phone saying the governor was trying to reach me,” recalled Senator Hugh Farley of Schenectady, who is described by Dicker as “seen by many as at least potentially prepared to side with Pataki.” Farley said he returned the call “and was told the governor wasn’t taking any calls” and “that’s the last I heard from him.”

    This is, of course, precisely the kind of detail that will never fit into a sound bite. Even the print media—which has been markedly critical of Pataki’s stated positions—has not looked behind this sham performance. Reporters from The Buffalo News to the Syracuse Post-Standard to the Times have noted, for example, that Pataki “secretly” supported a 1.25 percent increase in the sales tax in “private,” pre-veto meetings with Speaker Shelly Silver and senate leader Joe Bruno. It’s a claim both leaders have made, and that Pataki denies. But every story so far has buried this explosive charge—which strips bare the governor’s no-tax pose and puts him squarely on Bush’s anybody-but-the-rich side of the tax debate.

    Instead of portraying the actual Pataki—one who tried to cut a consumer-gutting deal and, once that failed, only pretended to block the budget he railed against—the media are allowing the governor to cast himself as a fiscal crusader. This is hardly a media favor for political reasons, as was the electoral cover-up of 2002. It’s just lazy, cookie-cutter journalism.

    Assemblyman Parment said it best: “The governor got the great political position on this. Any rise in the rate of unemployment or future economic problems of the state will now fall at the feet of the legislature.” Can we let this slippery skell, who lied his way to re-election, get away with that too?


    Research assistance: Zoe Alsop, Michael Anstendig