The Senator's Apprentice

Pataki's Labor Department Ignores a Serial Harasser

"I got several different explanations," said Strauss. "First, they said I was removed for my protection. Then it was for reorganization, then it was for downsizing, saying they don't have the manpower to handle apprentices anymore. I know that's not true because they have a new person doing it now."

Strauss believes that what really bothered Drago was not so much her physical rejection of him as her refusal to sign off on a private, for-profit apprenticeship program run by a contractor Drago appeared to favor—concerns she relayed to the I.G. The program was to be based at the state university's Maritime College, located in Velella's Bronx district. "Ed was a very big supporter of that program," she said. "He fought tooth and nail for it."

Strauss, whose job was to evaluate the instructional components of apprentice programs, said the proposal was deficient in many ways, including shortcuts that would have had plumbing apprentices taking the same classes as electricians. At one point, after she had turned down both the proposal and Drago's passes, he threatened her. "He said if I didn't approve that program, I'd lose my job," she said.

Strauss's response was to hire an Albany-based attorney, Kevin Luibrand, and file a lawsuit against Drago and the education and labor departments. All parties have denied the charges and the suit is pending.

For his part, Drago also filed notice that he intended to sue the inspector general over the report, but took no further action. Privately, he told associates that it had all come to nothing, that the charges against him had simply been dropped. Since then, according to people who work with him and who didn't want to be identified, his boorish conduct against other staff has continued unabated.

Velella also ducked questions about the matter. But his efforts on behalf of the rest of the Drago family are part of the lore and legend of legislative Albany. In 1987, seeking to defuse a newspaper exposé he knew was coming, Velella—a married father of four—publicly acknowledged that he had a daughter out of wedlock with an Albany secretary named Barbara Drago, Edward's sister. The senator said he had made arrangements to support the child financially.

With taxpayer help, he did. Since then, Barbara Drago has held a string of patronage jobs, capped by her current position as a $101,000-a-year administrative aide at the State University of New York. That post came after she served as acting director of the Institute for Entrepreneurship, a patronage-heavy, state-funded entity accused by the state comptroller last year of having squandered hundreds of thousands of government dollars.

Velella's assistance even extended to Drago's mother. In 1993, Newsday reported that the Bronx senator had fashioned legislation aimed at larding the pension of one person, then 65-year-old Mary Ann Drago, with a $24,000 sweetener.

There was one more ruse at public expense, according to prosecutors in the Manhattan district attorney's office. They claim Velella funneled money to pay for tuition for Barbara Drago's daughter out of bribes from state contractors that were disguised as legal fees to his father's law firm. The charges are part of a 25-count indictment against Velella and his father Vincent unsealed last year. Both men have insisted on their innocence and trial is scheduled for 2004.

None of that seemed to be bothering Velella last July, when he showed up with Barbara Drago and their daughter at the Georgian, a posh Lake George resort, as guests of the state's apprenticeship council. The annual event was hosted by Ed Drago and many top labor officials and politicians attended. It was a three-day conference and at the awards banquet, the Dragos and Velella all sat together at the head table, according to those who were present. Overnight rooms were made available for those honored guests, while the rest of the attendees, including Strauss, who was there as the official representative of the education department, drove back and forth from their homes.

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