By Albert Samaha
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Whatever the magic-tongued Cuomo said, Insignia entities began immediately donating to Cuomo, launching an avalanche of Farkas-tied contributions that has continued right up to the most recent filing. The first Insignia contributions$5,000 apiece from two entitiesoccurred in August 2001, just months after Cuomo left HUD, and were among the very first donations to his newborn gubernatorial campaign committee. They were hardly the first Farkas contributions to a Cuomo; other members of the Farkas family, which used to own the Alexander's department store chain, had contributed to the campaigns of Cuomo's father, Mario, when he was governor. Mario Cuomo actually appointed Farkas's father to the board of the state's powerful Dormitory Authority in his final year in office in 1994, and Robin Farkas became its chairman in 1995.
Rozet died in 2003, but his partner Ross, informed by the Voice of the extensive new relationship between Farkas and Andrew Cuomo, said it was "interesting that Cuomo is so tied to someone who had these kinds of dealings with HUD," adding that it "might raise some eyebrows." Ross said he had put the litigation behind him once it ended in 2001, but added that "it was selective," observing that "Andy [Farkas] wasn't a pain in the ass" to HUD, but he and Rozet were. AFC, whose 235 projects and 21,000 units topped the HUD ownership list, was derided by Cuomo for using HUD "like a personal ATM." But AFC countered in 1998 court papers that it was Insignia that was "at the very center of this case" and should have been charged, contending that Insignia had "represented" to AFC that "it had properly disclosed all relevant information" to HUD, including, "specifically," the fee-splitting arrangement. This AFC attempt to pin the false-claims charge at the core of the complaint squarely on Farkas was never expressly addressed by the government. In addition to Gilbert, a host of attorneys tied to Farkas have become major donors to Cuomo's campaign. Since most did not return Voice calls, it's unclear if they contacted Cuomo or his key staff on Farkas's behalf. Cuomo says he never talked to any of them, though he adds, "I can't say what lawyers my staff was talking to." Arnold Jacobs, a Proskauer Rose attorney who has long represented the Farkas family and sat in on Insignia board meetings at the time of the settlement, gave $5,000, and his wife another $5,000. Jacobs attended one pre-settlement meeting at HUD with Cuomo staff. Cuomo says he didn't meet Jacobs, whom he identifies as Farkas's "main adviser," until he went to work for Island Capital. Gilbert and Jacobs were partners at the now defunct Shea Gould until 1994, where a Cuomo daughter also worked.
Insignia was also represented by a powerhouse Washington lobbying firm in the '90s, Akin Gump, which Cuomo says he did not know at the time. Robert Koen, a director of Insignia at the time and an attorney at Akin, donated $25,000. The head of Akin Gump's Washington lobbying unit, Joel Jankowsky, gave another $7,500. Jankowsky and Dan Glickman, the agriculture secretary in the Clinton administration, have been close personal friends for decades, and Glickman eventually joined the firm. Glickman's wife, Rhoda, was Cuomo's deputy chief of staff, and Cuomo wound up working for Glickman at a Harvard think tank he ran. The Glickmans, who appeared with Farkas at an intimate birthday party for Cuomo at the Alex Hotel last year, have given $36,900 to Cuomo. Another Akin partner, Kirk O'Donnell, who died in late 1998, was an unofficial adviser to Cuomo. Of course, Akin Gump was wired into the Clinton White House, since its senior partner, Vernon Jordan, was the president's top confidant.
Gilbert returned to his firm, Nixon Peabody, in 2003, when Farkas sold the remaining divisions of Insignia and formed Island Capital. The firm still represents Farkas and now includes two partners with Cuomo ties from the '90s. Monica Sussman, a deputy general counsel at HUD who helped author an internal 1995 memo at the agency opposing the fee-splitting case, left the agency in 1996 to join a precursor to the Nixon Peabody firm, Peabody Brown, which represented Rozet. That firm merged with Gilbert's in 1999. Sussman is one of the partners who contributed a share of the firm's $5,000 Cuomo contribution. Gary Eisenman, who was described by a federal prosecutor as one of the key Cuomo aides involved in the Rozet/Farkas case, is also now a partner there. Eisenman ran the nonprofit housing project Cuomo founded in New York, H.E.L.P., after leaving HUD. He has given $2,500 to Cuomo and was described in news stories as a key volunteer in Cuomo's unsuccessful 2002 campaign. Even Holland Knight, another Farkas law firm involved in the fee-splitting probe, kicked in $1,000 to Cuomo.
As multi-layered as this intertwine was, it's impossible to determine, this many years later, if any of these connections had an effect at HUD. Cuomo accurately and insistently points out that the Justice Department and the independent HUD inspector general's office approved the Farkas settlement as well, suggesting that all HUD did was sign off on it at the end. But several sources knowledgeable about the five-month talks say HUD was deeply involved. Ross, who eventually signed his own settlement with Justice officials, said, "When we negotiated, we did it primarily with HUD," expressing the firm belief that "HUD was involved" with the Farkas deal as well.