Pataki Uncovered

When will New York's daily papers show us George Pataki's money? With only two weeks remaining before the gubernatorial election, the dailies have produced virtually no major investigations of Pataki's unprecedented campaign fundraising haul. And though sources at two papers say that stories are in the works, those pieces will do little to alter the fact that this election season has seen a remarkable reduction in campaign coverage--a drop-off that suggests a creeping abandonment of political commitment at the dailies.

On Saturday the Times reported that Pataki had called the state's campaign finance system "dreadful" and urged its overhaul. But when asked how he would change the system, Pataki admitted, "I do not have a plan."

That's not exactly a surprise, considering that the governor has already raised a record amount of cash for his re-election, as the Timesnoted. But Timesreaders were given no analysis of that $20 million pile--just as readers of the tabloids have heard little about Pataki's campaign finances.

This despite the fact that Pataki has transformed New York politics by raking in astonishing amounts of cash for his campaigns. He is the leader in a movement that has produced at least a tenfold increase over the 1994 election cycle in soft-money payoffs. He has raised twice as much money from companies that do business with the state than his opponent, Peter Vallone, has scraped together in total. The governor has done nothing during his tenure to change the system of political financing, and the fundraising activities of both his campaign committee and the state GOP are currently targets of at least two federal investigations. Then there is Pataki's alliance with Alfonse D'Amato, who has raked in more than $20 million in his own re-election effort.

Still, here in the city we've been denied the kind of basic information provided by the Albany Times-Union, which ran a package a week and a half ago disclosing, among other things, that some $9.5 million has flowed into Pataki's campaign and the state Republican party from state contractors. These figures are surely low; still, they are a useful start.

The Times-Unionseries looked, for example, at money the governor and the Republicans have received from law firms hired by the state as bond counsels. Since 1995, when Pataki took office, the Empire State Development Corporation has hired eight law firms to handle about $3 billion worth of bonds. Seven have made substantial contributions to Pataki's campaign, the state GOP, or the Conservative Party since Pataki ran in 1994. Another firm, city-based Haythe & Curley, has pumped nearly $100,000 into Pataki or GOP coffers--about $50,000 during the governor's '94 run. By the 1996­97 fiscal year, Haythe & Curley had become the Dormitory Authority's number-one bond counsel, earning more than $1 million in fees--despite the fact that, before 1995, it had not even ranked among the top 100 bond counsels in the country.

This information has yet to make its way into the city's papers--all the more surprising considering that, earlier this year, the four city dailies joined with 15 other newspapers across the state to computerize campaign finance records. The papers spent about $100,000 to hire a consultant who copied and keyboarded hundreds of thousands of entries.

Newsday did take advantage of this system, producing an impressive compilation of the state's biggest contributors in August. The Times's Clifford Levy has broken several important stories about funny money, including investigations into Carl McCall's and Dennis Vacco's finances. And a News team exposed fishy parole board actions on behalf of Pataki contributors. Still, since Levy first called attention to a suspicious $100,000 contract awarded to a Pataki-friendly firm in the spring, the governor's money machine has rolled on largely without media scrutiny.

"No one's really paid attention to the race till now anyway," says one daily editor, citing the lopsided nature of the Pataki-Vallone contest. But the papers have not given us a great deal to pay attention to, beyond coverage of the ad wars. Indeed, even if the dailies pour it on in the next two weeks, the amount of overall coverage--not only campaign finance stories--will not nearly match the ink spilled just four years ago. According to Dirk Smillie, whose News Research Group is tracking coverage of statewide contests, the governor's race has so far garnered 105 stories in the dailies since the primary. By my count, at the same point in '94, the governor's race had rated 102 stories in the Times alone, and another 91 in the Post.

Granted, the '94 campaign featured Mario Cuomo's swan song, and unlike this year's version, that contest was close. Times metro editor Joyce Purnick says the comparison with '94 is "apples and oranges." Still, the spotty coverage of the governor's race appears to be part of a larger pattern of diminishing returns when it comes to political reporting. Consider this comparison: at this point in 1992, the Times had run 179 articles about New York's senate race. This year, the Times has run 106 articles on the senate race. Similarly, Newsday had run 158 pieces to this point in 1992; this year, 87. If the Pataki-Vallone contest is an object lesson in foregone conclusions, then surely D'Amato-Abrams '92 and D'Amato-Schumer '98 and their attendant primaries offer kindred spectacles.

So what accounts for the steep drop-off? News deputy managing editor Rich Rosen cited Monica among the distractions, and he was echoed by Newsday national editor Lonnie Isabel, who added, "But that's no excuse. There has been a dwindling interest in political coverage over a period of time at our newspaper and at the others as well. And I've been disappointed with the coverage too."

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