Rudy Vs. George

Their new battle is more about the conservative party than the schools

Rudy Giuliani can't pass a pissing match without reaching for his zipper. In fact, the only way his proposed west side football colossus can generate the necessary year-round revenue is if he agrees to stage his weekly High Noon­showdowns- with-whomever there, drawing crowds of thousands.

For the first time, though, the mayor has taken on a pistolero with superior arc and throw weight: Peekskill farm boy George Pataki, who last week named a Moreland Act Commission with subpoena power to nail the mayor on school policy.

Twenty-four years prior to Giuliani's surprise 1994 endorsement of Mario Cuomo over Pataki, John Lindsay, the last Republican mayor of New York, endorsed Democratic gubernatorial candidate Arthur Goldberg, who was then challenging three-term incumbent Nelson Rockefeller. Lindsay, like Giuliani, said it was a matter of principle. Both picked losers.

Though Lindsay vowed in 1970 to remain a Republican, he was soon forced to switch parties. Rudy is still a Republican four years after he trashed the "ethics" of a possible Pataki administration, but he is now learning a thing or two about the long-term memory of elephants.

The dish-it-out-but-forget-about-taking-it King Prosecutor and Cop Mayor has only once before been on the receiving end of a government subpoena, and he's still freaking out about that. On February 10, up in Albany, the Court of Appeals will hear oral argument on the case of H. Carl McCall versus the City of New York, a nearly two-year-old lawsuit filed when the Giuliani administration defied 17 administrative subpoenas issued by the state comptroller in an effort to audit the performance of half a dozen agencies.

Should McCall win, as he already has before five appellate and one Supreme Court judge, his auditors will be swarming all over Rudy's government at just about the same time that Pataki's probers will be digging into the School Construction Authority (SCA) and the Board of Ed. The results of both should be available by the start of the 2000 race for the U.S. Senate— and McCall's scheduled audits include everything from the NYPD's crime stats to the tracking of welfare recipients to Health Department restaurant inspections.

The governor's school probe is a response to an array of Giuliani insults and miscalculations. He blocked Pataki's convention center expansion for years and then revealed his own version of it as part of a stealth football-stadium plan. He traveled the country last year making himself the state's No. 1 Republican instead of delivering a decent vote for the governor in the city. He gave Peter Vallone the only issue he had in the 1998 gubernatorial race: Yankee Stadium. And just days before the governor announced the commission, Liberal Party boss Ray Harding, the mayor's well-leashed attack dog, went to the Post to make tartly explicit the implicit theme of Rudy's national tour: it is Giuliani, not Pataki, who's responsible for every uptick in New York life.

But the proximate cause of the Moreland Act appointments may well have been the release shortly before Christmas of a report on the SCA that was commissioned by the mayor and prepared by his own Department of Investigations. The findings pinned indirect responsibility for the death of 16-year-old Yan Zhen Zhao on the negligence of an unqualified SCA project officer, Gary Marrone, who'd been hired because of his political ties to the governor.

The charges were so searing— and seized upon by Assembly Education Chair Steve Saunders, who will hold a hearing to investigate them Friday— that Pataki had to quietly ask his only appointee on the three-member SCA board, Paul Atanasio, to resign. Atanasio, a close ally and one-time congressional candidate of Conservative Party boss Mike Long, had allowed his top aide, Fran Vella Marrone, a party vice chair, to get her husband the SCA job in violation of an agency antinepotism rule. Gary Marrone permitted the contractor at P.S. 131 in Brooklyn to remove fencing precisely where bricks fell from the roof and killed Zhao.

The governor's commission is likely to prove that not all of the problems at the SCA were caused by his departed trustee. It is, after all, chaired by Howard Wilson, who is such a Giuliani sychophant that Rudy tried unsuccessfully to install him as his successor as U.S. Attorney in 1988 and named him investigations commissioner for the first three years of his administration. Wilson went unmentioned in the Giuliani report, but is unlikely to achieve the same invisibility when Pataki's commission finishes its job.

The third trustee is Harry Spence, the deputy schools chancellor brought here from Boston by Rudy Crew. While Crew has lashed out at the governor for launching this investigation, it's been Spence, more than anyone up to now, who's been the multibillion-dollar agency's lonely voice of probity.

For example, at the June meeting of the board, Wilson and Atanasio voted down a Spence motion to direct the SCA Inspector General "to conduct a full analysis and investigation of all hires" during the period when Gary Marrone was initially employed. Wilson called Spence's resolution "a witch-hunt," even though the DOI report eventually found that Fran Marrone had attempted to put 20 other people on the payroll, succeeding with at least one other unqualified project officer who was also ultimately fired. (Citing the fifth and first amendments, Marrone refused to provide the names of these 20 to investigators, and most are still unknown.)

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