Lies, Damned Lies, and Campaign Promises

Pataki Spins Houdini Math

The scandal-tinged governorship of George Elmer Pataki is now caught in its biggest scandal of all—how he, apparently to ensure his election to a third term last year, kept from the voters the gravity of the state's financial situation and thus worsened the crisis by not taking early emergency measures to deal with it.

Some good-government watchdogs think this is a case of knowing malfeasance of office for personal gain, but in the real world, no one expects any prosecutor to seek accountability through the justice system. In any event, it is a story of how, to protect his political future, Pataki hustled the state of New York—through sleight-of-hand and a campaign trail of illusions, evasions, and the more than occasional prevarication—into the biggest budget shortfall in New York history. As all of us know from recent banner headlines, the Pataki team is now $11.5 billion short in a budget of $90 billion. That spells severe financial pain and sacrifice for millions of New Yorkers, especially those on the lower branches of the money tree.

George Pataki knew how serious the state's financial condition was nearly a year ago as he campaigned for a third term, yet he told the voters everything was hunky-dory. He gave them his vow there would be no new taxes and soothed them with assurances that the budget-gap projections they were hearing from others were wildly exaggerated.

illustration: Ryan Sanchez

Last September, two months before Election Day, the majority leader of the state senate, Joseph Bruno, like Pataki a Republican, said that his reading of the numbers put the budget gap already in the $10 billion range—and climbing. Pataki scoffed at Bruno's projection, telling Daily News reporter Joel Siegel: "I don't know where it came from. Joe is a wonderful leader. He doesn't always do thorough research before putting out an analysis."

Bruno's forecast was of course right on the money. And now Pataki and his spinners are scrambling mightily to distance themselves from the anger of voters who feel betrayed. These voters will be hit with huge state and local tax increases that they now know could have been significantly reduced if only the governor had acknowledged the crisis and taken early steps, such as a freeze on spending and hiring, to lessen the damage.

When reporters would ask Pataki during the campaign to explain the disparity between his rosy picture and the dire warnings of his political opponents and independent analysts, he would most often duck the questions. Even when he did respond, he would offer no details and merely say that his figures had come from his budget "professionals." He would also immediately say he was "proud" of his record.

In fact, this was Pataki's mantra throughout the campaign when asked about any scandal or controversy: He would state his pride in his accomplishments in that particular policy area and then say that all past decisions were made by the "professionals" in state agencies. It was almost as if he was setting up his own appointees and employees as possible scapegoats should he need a defense later on—say, if legislative hearings or even grand juries were convened. Poor man—he was only doing what the "professionals" told him to.

The most recent controversy, just this past week, has escalated to fever pitch—the charge by both the state and city comptrollers that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, a rarely scrutinized adjunct of the governor's office, had diddled with its books to force an increase in the bus and subway fare this year instead of waiting until next year, when the reserves would actually have been used up. The real mystery—still unexplained by MTA chairman Peter Kalikow, a privately wealthy, major contributor to Pataki campaigns—is how and why the agency declared itself to be in surplus before the gubernatorial election, and then, as soon as Pataki had coasted to victory, declared the surplus to have remarkably disappeared—thereby necessitating a fare hike. How magical.

As in most of this governor's unorthodox dealings, money is at the heart of it, usually money that goes into his campaign chest in return for lucrative state contracts and other favors. Of course, Pataki denies there is any connection. His wife, Libby, earns $200,000 or more a year from part-time consulting contracts given to her by companies that either receive state contracts or give major campaign money to the governor. She thus earns more than the governor, whose salary is $179,000.

The pattern of Pataki's conduct would seem to be tailored after that of his mentors, chief among them former U.S. senator Alfonse D'Amato and Charles Gargano. The latter is a master campaign fundraiser who performed this service for D'Amato, who then bequeathed him to Pataki, who soon made him the state's economic development czar, through whom all major infrastructure contracts are now funneled, including the billions of federal dollars for the rebuilding of ground zero. Through their long political careers, both D'Amato and Gargano have gained reputations as men who never came upon a conflict of interest that they couldn't turn into a windfall.

I mention all this only to show that the governor has some outstanding role models.

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