New York's Prince of Darkness

Pataki Policies Put Us at the Blackout Brink

And it hasn't just been Democrats who've been appalled at state policies. As quiet as the tabloids have been since the blackout, a Daily News editorial in 2000 blasted the governor's deregulation as "dopey," accusing it of "electrocuting the state's economy," and the Post said the governor "crowed it would lead to more competition and lower prices, but the opposite proved true." Even an upstate utility, NYSEG (New York State Electric & Gas), issued an unusual policy paper in 2001, warning that our energy market, "like a train without brakes," was "on a volatile, high-priced track leading to derailment." The NYSEG report charged that "no significant transmission expansion" had occurred here in a decade, "there was no policy to encourage construction of new transmission," and that New York had to link up with regional partners.

Of course, nothing happened. Even the NYISO, the official voice of Pataki's deregulated system, concluded in May that ours had some of the"worst" transmission bottlenecks in America, susceptible to blackouts, warning that, "lack of transmission investment could well result in reliability problems in the not-too-distant future." The ISO, which declared as far back as 2001 that New York was in a state of persistent crisis," says now that transmission development here has slowed "to a glacial crawl," making it the only one of the three Northeast combines to not even have "a planning process for infrastructure improvements."

But as damning as all these multiple warnings have been, nothing unveils Pataki energy policies more than the tawdry appointments he's made to oversee them at the PSC. His first chair was John O'Mara, the scandal-a-day friend of Al D'Amato who wound up his lobbying partner and the registered lobbyist for Niagara Mohawk, one of the state's biggest utilities, shortly after launching the deregulation deal that so benefited NiMo. Another D'Amato lobbying company represented Energy East, also a beneficiary of O'Mara's deregulation, as well as one of the merchant generators building a new plant here. O'Mara is known to swing through the governor's office even today, wearing so many hats he's stooped—Pataki's casino negotiator with the Indians, chair of his judicial screening panel, a member of the commission that approves capital improvements for the courts, and a peddler for any state interest with the money to hire him.

Blackout '03: After eight and a half years of radical deregulation and disinvestment, the governor is pointing an accusatory finger anywhere he can.
photo: Cary Conover
Blackout '03: After eight and a half years of radical deregulation and disinvestment, the governor is pointing an accusatory finger anywhere he can.

One of O'Mara's more intriguing clients was a pipe company in his hometown of Elmira that faced possible manslaughter charges a few years ago due to the bizarre, on-the-job death of a workman. He lobbied the office of the then state attorney general, Dennis Vacco, and Vacco, to the consternation of federal law enforcement agencies, The New York Times, and PBS, dropped the case, until he was finally forced to reach a widely denounced plea deal with the company. In his meetings with the AG's office, O'Mara was interfacing with Vacco chief of staff, Bill Flynn, a champion of the settlement, who strong-armed the feds into backing out of the case. Flynn is the new PSC chair, named by Pataki this February, though he'd flunked the bar exam seven times, an awkward commentary on the quality of the governor's power plutocrats.

In between O'Mara and Flynn was Maureen Helmer, a career Albany Republican patronage appointee with at least some energy credentials, who went to work, after leaving the PSC, for Couch & White, Albany's top energy lobbying firm.

With this kind of baggage, it's no wonder the deflecting governor was so quick to tell the Times on Saturday—confronted with Assembly Speaker Shelly Silver's call for September hearings—that he hoped those who might "try to politicize" the calamity would "end up marginalized." His histrionics when the lights went out were all part of the same load-shedding scheme, just like the amnesia he invoked over the broken budget, a crass attempt to turn crisis into self-protective camouflage.

He ran all those years ago as the blank-slate candidate, with no record and three lines of mantra-like program. He has even managed to get re-elected twice running as the still-new kid on the block with the crooked smile. But he can no longer get away with winsome irresponsibility. He is the governor, and has been for longer than all but a couple of his predecessors. He has no business proudly announcing that he doesn't even know what the North American Reliability Council is, or offering free passes to Jones Beach while the mayor is shutting nearby beaches due to sewage. He can't just point fingers in the wind at a moment of crisis and vow to ask the tough questions. It's time, after nearly a decade of vacuous evasions, that he came up with the tough answers.

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