By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Though it haunted the Pataki administration for more than three years and led to four federal convictions, the saga of the state parole board fix is not even on the media's radar screen in this gubernatorial campaign.
In a July 2000 summation that preceded the conviction of a top Pataki fundraiser, one federal prosecutor branded it "the biggest fundraising scandal that this state has seen in a very long time," with $40,000 in contributions launching a frenzy of Pataki-tied attempts to get three violent felons out of jail early.
Yet all the devastating evidence of the corrupting of the state parole processdetailed in two trials and the guilty pleas of two other high-ranking state officialshas disappeared into the ethical ether of the Pataki era, where quid pro quo is the status quo. A Voice examination of the under-reported record of these cases, following the trail of $708,366 in campaign and public dollars used to pay the Pataki lawyers who fought the prosecutors in this case, has pinpointed the reasons why George Pataki should be personally held accountable in Campaign 2002 for this disgraceful scandal.
Brion Travis is still the chair of the parole board, one of the most powerful law enforcement posts in state government. On July 19, 2000, U.S. District Court Judge Frederic Block formally declared Travis an "unindicted co-conspirator" in the parole-for-sale conspiracy that, according to prosecutors, led to the release of one armed robber and influenced the handling of two other cases. The court declaration, offered toward the end of the two-week trial of Pataki fundraiser and Korean community leader Yung Soo Yoo, was the culmination of the disturbing evidence of Travis's complicity.
Ron Hotaling, the board's former number-two official, testified at the Yoo trial that Travis ordered him to tell two parole commissioners that the governor's office wanted John Kim, whose parole application was vigorously opposed by the Queens district attorney, to be released at his first hearing. After Kim was convicted of three armed robberiesincluding one that involved the stun-gunning of a store owner and another the terrorizing of an 8-year-old at gunpoint in her homehis family and friends donated $7000 to the Pataki camp.
With Travis telling Hotaling that he was under "a tremendous amount of pressure from the governor's office to release Kim," Hotaling testified that he relayed the message that "the governor wants this guy released" to the two commissioners who were deciding the April 1996 case. Hotaling initially lied to federal investigators about his role in this fix and wound up pleading guilty to obstruction of justice, while the two commissioners were also convicted of perjury for lying about the Hotaling approach. None of these three is still at parole, but Travis, a neighbor of the governor's in Garrison who baby-sat for his children, remains in charge of a board with the power to judge and shape the lives of thousands.
Listen to prosecutor Eric Friedberg's summation two years ago about Travis: "Travis delivers the message to Hotaling and it is outrageous and it is illegal. There is the payoff. It's the exact form of corruption that Mr. Yoo promised and it is the corruption as charged of members and of officials of the Division of Parole. The conversation that Brion Travis had with Ron Hotaling is what Mr. Yoo and the family's money bought and paid for."
After this investigation began in January of 1998, Travis, one of the earliest donors to Pataki's 1994 campaign, hired Albany attorney William Dreyer to represent him, and never cooperated with prosecutors. The day of Hotaling's testimony, Travis's spokesman adopted virtually the same language as Yoo's attorney, calling Hotaling "an admitted liar and convicted criminal who was fired from his job."
The government summation answered that argument: "First you have to believe when Hotaling told us nothing happened, that was the truth, and then for no reason at all, he decided I am going to make up a false story about the corruption just so I can get indicted, just so I can plead guilty. Why would anyone in their right minds do that?"
Patrick Donahue is still the finance director for Friends of Pataki, setting new state fundraising records every day. Also named an "unindicted co-conspirator" in the parole case, Donahue helped bring Yoo into the campaign, collected the contributions from Yoo, met with the families who'd been promised early release (apparently telling one, "No problem"), and sent memos to the governor's office on their behalf. A defense witness for Yoo who denied any knowledge of the conspiracy, Donahue was laid bare on cross examination, as Friedberg put it, "completely contradicted by his prior grand jury testimony" and by taped conversations he'd had with one family. Donahue, said Friedberg, "willingly and knowingly participated in the scheme."
Though three witnesses, including Donahue's assistant in the campaign finance office, testified that they'd had conversations with him about the promised paroles, and though one memo from Yoo said flatly that he had to either get the releases or refund the donations, Donahue insisted he knew nothing about it. Ridiculed by the government in summation as "the shining beacon of truth" and "Mr. Yoo's co-conspirator," Donahue, who took over the finance office in his mid twenties, was represented by a gaggle of high-priced criminal lawyers paid for by the Pataki campaign.