Jeb & George

Bush Slated to Pay Top Dollar for Libby Pataki’s Florida Land

Martin County's water quality chief, Gary Roderick, wrote a memo that implicitly made much the same point as Hayes. After the unanimous June vote of the state's Acquisition and Restoration Council to list the two parcels on the "A" list for purchase, Roderick said that the southernmost 2580-acre sections of the project—which are owned by Indiantown Realty Partners—"contain the historic flowway of Cypress Creek and the bulk of the environmentally sensitive portion of the tract." The northern sections owned by Sunrise, Roderick concluded, include only "the groves and minor wetlands."

The Jupiter Courier described a similar dichotomy when its reporter accompanied state and local officials on a daylong swamp buggy tour of the parcels in April. The paper contrasted "the Old World climbing vine and exotic species" on the southern side with "the lack of pristine land on the grove," which, it said, was occupied by three-foot alligators "lurking near drainage ditches" and hawks hanging in the sky. Pataki partner "Punch" Martyn, who led the tour of their site, declared: "I haven't heard a price, but I'm a willing seller." Officials offered only $3444 an acre for the wetlands in 1999.

Sunrise bought the parcel from Indiantown Realty, which is principally owned by James Moran, a Maryland businessman who has given $92,300 to Jeb Bush and the state party in the last two years. Moran's company bought 5900 acres in September 1999 from WCI Communities, a development firm owned by Al Hoffman, the chairman of the state party's finance committee and top Jeb Bush backer. Indiantown, which still owns the wetland portion of the site, sold the groves to Sunrise barely three months after acquiring them.

Libby Pataki: Will she make a windfall on post-election sale?
Libby Pataki: Will she make a windfall on post-election sale?

While county officials declined to specify the expected price, Hayes said he's been told that Sunrise "will get about the same per acre" as was paid for the Moran property. Sunrise partners Bills and Hayden refused to comment on the price as well, with Bills denying that canker prompted the decision to sell. "You know everything's always for sale," said Bills, indicating it was a matter of price.

School for Hypocrisy

George Pataki did a 180-degree turn on the controversial appellate division decision upholding the state's school-aid funding formula, going from being "pleased" with it to condemning the eighth-grade standard for success it set for city schools. His verbal conversion won the endorsement of Randi Weingarten, the teachers union president more concerned about salary aid than school aid. But it did not involve any formal retreat from the state's insistence on opposing the suit, which was brought years ago by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE), a coalition of education groups challenging the historically discriminatory funding formula. Pataki decided to appeal a lower court loss in the case and continues to defend the formula at the Court of Appeals, which will hear it next year.

CFE and state officials have opened negotiations on a possible settlement, and one of the governor's representatives in the room is none other than Martin Bienstock, the state attorney who was the prime architect of the defense of the formula. It was Bienstock whose aggressive arguments so outraged then chancellor Harold Levy that Levy walked out of the courtroom in the middle of Bienstock's final summation at the trial, before Supreme Court Judge Leland DeGrasse. When Bienstock made that speech in 2000, he was working for the attorney general. He was first hired by Republican AG Dennis Vacco, who assigned him to the case before leaving office at the end of 1998.

Ironically, Bienstock left the AG's office eight months after his appearance before DeGrasse to take a $15,000 raise and go to work as assistant counsel to the governor, advising him on education matters. The very arguments the governor now spurns originated with Bienstock, who contended before DeGrasse that "the minimal constitutional standard" for education "is crucial because it sets a bar that keeps the judiciary from interfering." Bienstock said that the evidence in the case showed that "not only is the money there, but that the NYC public school system, warts and all, does provide a sound basic education," which means its students grow up "capable of voting and serving on a jury."

Bienstock claimed that salary increases for teachers "had no positive effect, none, on student performance," and argued that "pouring a lot of money into schools may not be the best way of addressing issues of poverty," citing prenatal care as a possible preferred approach.

All three of the judges who signed on to the majority opinion were either appointed or promoted by Pataki, including Utica judge John Buckley, who is reportedly under consideration to become the next presiding justice in Manhattan's First Department. Buckley is one of four appellate judges in the two departments based in the city who is having many of his personal expenses regularly reimbursed by the state. The governor's insistence on appointing upstate Republicans to vacancies downstate—a peculiarly Pataki phenomenon—has led to the expenditure of $284,861 since 1999, with Buckley running up the biggest bills, a total of $140,927 between April 1999 and August 2002.

Not surprisingly, a traveling judge like Buckley also has rather transient views about matters very material to life in NYC. In addition to joining the CFE majority, Buckley was one of the majority that decided in 2000 to move the Amadou Diallo case to Albany, where the charged cops were predictably acquitted. He also was the only judge to be part of the majority in the two highly politicized, 3-to-2, election law cases this year. He voted to allow Bronx state senator Pedro Espada, who sits and votes with the Republicans in Albany, to run as a Democrat, and then voted to knock the Democratic nominee in the same race, Reuben Diaz, off the ballot. Both decisions were reversed by the Court of Appeals unanimously.

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