By Albert Samaha
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Al DAmato, who spent 18 years in the Senate dodging federal prosecutors, is tryingalbeit indirectlyto influence the appointment of the next United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, which covers Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, and Long Island.
While U.S. senators like DAmato used to make the recommendations for New Yorks presidential appointments, the Bush White House is reportedly ignoring the states two Democrats and listening instead to Governor Pataki and the leaders of the House Republican delegation, led by senior congressman Ben Gilman. A Pataki aide floated the name of a candidate in the Times a week and a half ago, right around the time that the governor announced hed appointed a screening panel of top lawyers to review possible nominees. Both the candidate and the panel have a decidedly DAmato aura about them.
The candidate, State Inspector General Roslynn Mauskopf, is the best friend of the legendary Zenia Mucha, who now lives in Los Angeles and is the six-figure communications director for Disney. Until recently, Mucha held the same title for Pataki. Before that, she was DAmatos eyes, ears, and mouth. Several sources knowledgeable about the appointment process say that Mucha has been pushing hard for the 44-year-old, Albany-based Mauskopf, who for years has stayed in Muchas Manhattan apartment whenever shes in the city. Mucha declined to talk to the Voice when informed of the specific nature of this story, as did Mauskopf.
In the nearly six years that Mauskopf has been charged with investigating improper conduct by state officials, she has not pressed a single case against a top Pataki appointee, though her predecessors did force the resignations of high-level Cuomo aides. Charles Gargano, the longtime DAmato fundraiser and state economic czar under Pataki, was the target of Mauskopfs most widely publicized case. But that investigationwhich she conducted jointly with Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthauwas recently closed without any charges being brought.
Even the seedy DAmatowhose brother was convicted in one of the many federal probes that targeted him (a conviction overturned on appeal)had a full panel of prestigious lawyers review the qualifications of prospective federal judges and prosecutors. But Pataki has named only one person to his screening committeeJohn OMara, an Elmira attorney. OMara has been joined at the hip to DAmato since he played a major role in the ex-senators first campaign in 1980. He served on DAmatos screening panel for years. DAmato brought OMara into Patakis first gubernatorial campaign in 1994, and he eventually became Patakis chairman of the Public Service Commission.
If it is a hot summer, all New Yorkers may well become unhappily familiar with the obscure OMara. He personally negotiated the backroom deregulation deals with the states six big power companies that the Daily News blasted last August for electrocuting the states economy. Though the News editorial page has been notoriously pro-Pataki, it called OMaras PSC the real culprit, responsible for a dopey deregulation plan, even before the threatened blackouts of 2001. The PSC blithely ignored the fact that no new power plants have been built in New York in 20 years, said the News, and forced the deregulated utilities to sell their generating facilities while doing nothing to encourage new energy sources.
A lobbyist since his 1998 defeat, DAmato has already been embroiled in one federal probe in Connecticut, which resulted in the conviction of the ex-state treasurer who was employed by DAmatos small lobbying firm. Not only is DAmato the registered lobbyist for Energy East, an upstate conglomerate that owns two of the big six utilities deregulated by OMara, he has also reportedly represented a gaming company with an interest in the states plan for a new Catskills casino run by the Mohawk Indians. OMara, the governors point man on all Indian issues, is negotiating the casino deal.
In addition, DAmato represents Telergy, a Syracuse-based communications company that has included OMara on its board since 1998. The company requires PSC approvals to use Con Ed rights-of-way to build a high-speed, broadband communications network in the city. It originally was a partner of Con Eds, another of OMaras big six utilities, but now plans to build its own communication lines alongside Con Eds lines.
Mauskopf has already demonstrated just how politically pliable a prober she is. In January 1999, Pataki named her to chair a three-member special state investigationcalled the Moreland Act Commissionto look at the citys School Construction Authority. The announcement came at a time when Pataki was particularly peeved at Rudy Giuliani and the SCA was chaired by the mayors longtime confidant Howard Wilson.
Giulianis Department of Investigations had just issued a report blasting Patakis appointee to the SCA, and the Moreland commission inquiry was widely perceived as payback. But when Giuliani subsequently stepped forward as the GOP alternative to Hillary Clinton, and Pataki endorsed him, Mauskopfs commission reversed course. Almost two and a half years later, the commission has yet to make a single public finding about the SCA.
Instead, in December 1999, Mauskopf engineered a slam at then schools chancellor Rudy Crew, releasing a report that accused the Board of Education of fixing school attendance figures to inflate state aid. An already wounded target of both Giuliani and Pataki, Crew was forced out shortly thereafter. While the attendance issue was a secondary mandate of the commission from its inception, the Mauskopf report did not contain any specificsidentifying no schools where misconduct had occurred and relying on statistical simulations to make a broad and damning case.
The rationale offered for this unusual ambiguity added to the reports incendiary tonenamely that the commission was at such a particularly significant and sensitive stage, uncovering criminal or potentially criminal acts, that it was extremely limited in what it can reveal publicly at this time. A year and a half later, neither the commission nor any prosecutor has returned to the attendance issue, though Mauskopf is reportedly continuing her investigation.
Harry Spence, a former Crew deputy who has relocated to Massachusetts, told the Voice that Mauskopfs irresponsible assertions in the attendance report so outraged several members of the commission staff that they resigned within a few weeks. Other sources identified two top staffersexecutive director Barbara Billet and research director Ruth Henehanamong those who quit. Reached at home by the Voice, Billet, who is now deputy commissioner of the state tax department, declined to answer questions about her departure. Henehan, who is also with another state agency, did not respond to specific messages.
Stanley Grayson, a former deputy mayor under Ed Koch and one of the three members of the commission, told the Voice that he did not know why Billet left. She called and told me she was resigning, he said. It was rather abrupt.
While the only other commission report featured the name of Billets successor on the title page and listed 37 staff members on the back page, neither Billet nor any other staffer is identified in the attendance report. Ironically, the second reportissued in May 2000faulted the Board of Educations construction planning and recommended that the SCAthe original commission targetbe given greater authority in determining what schools should be renovated or built.
State comptroller Carl McCall, whose office had long been studying attendance reporting, assailed the Mauskopf findings as speculative. A McCall analysis charged that the Moreland estimate of the amount of additional state aid connected to the inflated attendance figures was based only on the hypothetical impact over a five-year period of a hypothetical overstatement of attendance of 2-3 percent. But McCall said the incidents of overreporting do not add up to the assumed percent, nor did the data in the report support such an estimate.
McCall also pointed out that attendance has little to do with determining state aid. It is well known, concluded the comptroller, that the education formulas are annually worked backwards until the politically negotiated share for the city schools is hit in the calculations. In this context, the data feeding into the school aid formulas for New York City is really of no practical consequence whatsoever.
Even Grayson, who was appointed to the commission by Pataki and views Mauskopf as a good, thoughtful lawyer, told the Voice that he believed the commission had gotten sidetracked on what I would call minor issues. He described the attendance report as a dangling participle with no finality, expressing the hope that a conclusive version of it and an SCA study would eventually appear. Grayson said the commission only met four times in the last year and participated in another four conference calls.
McCalls office has also issued an audit sharply critical of Mauskopfs other officethe inspector general. In a 24-page report issued last July, McCall found that half of Mauskopfs investigations were not completed within the time limits set by her office, and that she had abandoned the long-standing practice of issuing annual reports documenting the work of the office. In addition, while prior IGs had included a representative from the comptrollers office in monthly executive meetings and shared information on cases and audits, Mauskopf delayed and hampered McCalls two-year review, denying access to most files.
It makes one wonder exactly what they are afraid of, said McCall. While McCall is a Democrat overseeing a Republican administration, the previous comptroller, Ned Regan, was a Republican overseeing a Democratic administration. Yet the IG and comptroller freely exchanged information in the Cuomo years. A McCall spokesman told the Voice last week that Mauskopf has not been as cooperative as the previous IG, adding that McCall was also disappointed by the sometimes inflammatory claims of the Moreland commission.
New York Post Albany bureau chief Fred Dicker has written that Mauskopf so often socialized with high-ranking Pataki aidesparticularly Mucha, a friend for a decadethat she compromised the independence of her agency. In a 1999 profile of her, The New York Law Journal cited two unnamed sources who criticized Mauskopf as being too close to the officials she is charged with investigating and failing to bring broad-ranging probes aimed at the top levels of government. The U.S. Attorneys office in Brooklyn has convicted three people in a probe of the Pataki parole board and is reportedly still investigating others.