By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
True to his form as the biggest stiff in the most expensive U.S. Senate race in history, Rick Lazio now appears to be sticking it to a bevy of campaign consultants and technical crews to the tune of nearly $3 million.
From big guys to little guys, 26 people and companies who worked behind the scenes for the Long Island lightweight are finding to their surprise that the amounts owed to them are "disputed," according to Federal Election Commission records.
Audiovisual guru Joe Surowiec, who has worked for big-time campaigns for several years, said he's never heard of one unilaterally listing debts as "disputed."
His New Jersey company, Imagineering Audio Visuals Inc., traipsed all over New York State setting up lights and microphones at Lazio's campaign events. Imagineering's latest bill was for $100,970, but the company has received only $20,775, according to FEC records. What happened to the "outstanding balance" of $80,195? Campaign treasurer Tony Piccirillo listed it as disputed.
That was shocking news to Surowiec. When told about it last week by the Voice, Surowiec ruefully said, "I've been doing this work for years, but I've never had a problem until this campaign. In this kind of work, you depend on people's word." A veteran of Christie Whitman's gubernatorial campaigns in Jersey, among other high-profile races, Surowiec said he submitted the same kind of bill to Lazio with the same kind of detail that he's always included. And Lazio's campaign hadn't questioned his previous bills, though it did pay him "sporadically," he added.
Loser Lazio already had told Surowiec and other vendors that he expected to settle all of his debts by February 15, so Surowiec speculated that this ploy of disputing some debts is merely to "buy time" to extend that deadline. If so, Lazio's camp apparently didn't tell at least some of the vendors.
Surowiec said he had a sinking feeling anyway during Lazio's Titanic-like campaign. In October, he said, "I pulled the plug on one of his events because I wasn't getting paid. And meanwhile, while I had crews running all around upstate New York, the Bush people wanted me to do some work for them and I couldn't. I should have pulled the plug on the Lazio campaign earlier. Now I just hope that I can stay in business."
Surowiec said he's paid for hotels, salaries, fuel, and tolls up front and wouldn't screw those who depend on getting paid by him. He needs the money from Lazio so he can make his living. But Surowiec has more sympathy for his Alabama friend Johnny L. Williams, who provided the "Mainstream Express" campaign bus for Lazio.
Williams had done the campaign-bus thing for John McCain during the presidential primaries. Lazio, under the guidance of McCain strategist Mike Murphy, kicked off his campaign with a ballyhooed bus trip similar to McCain's, in which Williams provided everything, even munchies for the herd of reporters who rode with the candidate. "They ate his food, and they shat it out," Surowiec lamented, "and he didn't even get paid for it."
Lazio summoned Williams again for a last mad dash around New York late in the campaign, and Williams submitted a bill of $266,864.91. But he received only $63,282.98. The balance of $203,581.93 is in dispute. Surowiec said his friend Williams was counting on this year's campaigns to provide him with money for retirement.
After the Voice told Williams's wife that the money owed him was designated as disputed, Williams called a Lazio campaign staffer, who didn't deny it but instead professed ignorance. "He said he didn't know anything about it," Williams added. "I don't know what to think. Nobody's told us we aren't going to get paid. But I'm a small-time operator. I paid for the food and the other expenses up front. I'm just treadin' water here, checkin' my mailbox every day."
Not all of Lazio's creditors' bills were designated as disputed. But some people who are owed only a few hundred dollars made the shit list. So did the biggest of big-timers, Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
The smallest of the disputed debts is $431.25 owed to Friends of Giuliani, and the largest is a whopping $575,411.08, the balance of a $1.5 million bill submitted by Laura Van Hove, a Giuliani fundraiser who works out of the mayor's Maiden Lane campaign office. Lazio did pay her $901,507.92.
Campaign strategist Murphy made out well. Only $65,000 of the $3.2 million Lazio paid Murphy's advertising agencyjust the latest of the huge bills Murphy has sent to Laziowas listed as disputed. Despite devising three losing campaigns this yearMcCain's, Lazio's, and that of Michigan incumbent senator Spencer AbrahamMurphy is still considered by TV pundits as a campaign "expert." And he must be an expert of some sort, because he raked in millions of dollars this year not only from the three losers but from the sale of his company to an international conglomerate.
Lazio wasn't available to explain the situation. His campaign staff referred queries to campaign treasurer Piccirillo, Lazio's hometown accountant buddy in Bay Shore. Piccirillo didn't return phone calls.