Roman Holiday

New York's ambassador lives high, large, and loose

With just two months to go in his job as the state's economic development czar, Charles Gargano hopped on an Alitalia Airlines flight last October 20 and flew to Rome. His ticket included an open return, from Rome's Da Vinci airport to JFK. The cost, $3,579, was billed to Gargano's state-supplied corporate American Express card. But the purpose of the trip—one of at least six that Gargano made to Italy on the public's dime while overseeing state economic development activities—is unknown. Gargano, the dapper former ambassador to Trinidad and Tobago during the Reagan administration who helped former governor George Pataki raise much of his campaign cash, never bothered with the required paperwork. Under rules in place at the Empire State Development Corporation, where Gargano served as chairman from 1995 to 2006, he was supposed to submit a "Pre-Trip Authorization" memo and another detailing what he spent and why. He did neither.

The only explanation offered was a one-line entry from his secretary to the accounting department: "This charge is for airfare to Italy for last minute request for Chairman to speak at an event."

What event? Whose request? Officials say they don't have a clue. "We have no information on it, no backup that we've been able to find," says agency spokesman A.J. Carter.

Gargano, who was born in Italy and is reportedly building a home there, also isn't saying. He failed to respond to messages left for him at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, where he remains a powerful commissioner thanks to a new six-year reappointment Pataki bestowed on him during the former governor's final weeks in office. As state development honcho, Gargano was a controversial figure, often criticized for his favorable treatment of political allies. Last month, the Voice reported that Gargano's nephew had lobbied his uncle's offices on behalf of a client seeking a long-term state lease ("The Magician's Nephew," February 14–20).

"As far as I know, all of his expenses were related to state government business," says Vanessa Cuti, a former state economic development aide.

But a Voice review of Gargano's expenses found that the impromptu and costly jaunt to Rome was one of several cases in which Gargano had the public pay his fare and ignored his own agency's stiff standards on expense reimbursement.

Last July, Gargano socked the state with a $410 bill for a flight from Nantucket to New York for what his secretary described as "a last-minute interview request with Brian Williams of the NBC Nightly News." (The interview didn't air until September 11, 2006, when Gargano was part of a story commemorating the fifth anniversary of the attacks.)

In June, the ambassador billed the state for a flight to Quebec, at a cost of $487. Although his secretary told the accounting department that the trip was personal and would be reimbursed, Gargano never paid back the funds, officials say.

In September 2005, while Gargano was traveling with Pataki on a trade mission to China, he took a side jaunt to Helsinki to visit real estate tycoon Earle Mack, a major Pataki campaign contributor who had recently been named ambassador to Finland by President Bush. The $1,496 cost was justified, his secretary wrote, since Gargano was "addressing potential investors in New York State."

Back in New York, Gargano liberally used his corporate AmEx card to pay for meals at many of the city's poshest dining establishments—rarely explaining why.

While the state's economic development chief was expected to rub elbows with top business leaders—the kind of people who don't normally lunch at Papaya King—he was also obligated under agency rules to name his dining companions and the business subject discussed.

But the filings show that Gargano spent $16,000 from 2001 to 2006 at top restaurants, listing expenses as meals shared with unidentified "business executives."

At San Pietro's, a pricey midtown Italian restaurant where Gargano is a regular, the ambassador has charged more than $4,000 for 15 lunches since 2001, only twice disclosing his fellow diners: One event was a 2003 lunch with Pataki aide Lou Tomson; at the other he gallantly let the state pay for a $139 lunch in June 2004 with CNN talking head Margaret Carlson. On July 11, 2005, he signed for a $673 meal there—with parties unknown.

Last summer, Gargano had the state pay for a $308 lunch at prestigious Le Cirque with other unnamed guests. A week later he used the card to pay for a $415 dinner at Campagnola, a swank Upper East Side bistro, again with anonymous "executives."

Gargano had the state pay for a half-dozen meals at Bobby Van's, a chic steakhouse in Bridgehampton, Long Island, which happens to be around the corner from a sprawling beachfront villa Gargano owns there. He enjoyed a $134 lunch at the restaurant last June, and a $109 lunch in October—both with unnamed execs.

It's not as though Gargano lacks his own funds. Financial disclosure filings he made with the state's ethics board show that his holdings in stocks and real estate, mostly with Long Island projects he co-owns with his son Lawrence, soared during his years in office (actual dollar amounts are not disclosed to the public). And in his last year as chairman of the state's development corporation, Gargano's salary was $160,760. He is also still owed $28,854.42 in unused vacation pay, according to agency officials. But the ambassador shouldn't count on collecting it all.

"Before he gets that money, we will deduct whatever he owes in outstanding expenses," says Carter, the agency's spokesman. tom robbins

 
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