The Truth Behind Troopergate

A capital melodrama starring Eliot Spitzer, Joe Bruno and Andrew Cuomo

The only news in New York politics that's mattered for three months (and counting) is the bizarre hype surrounding the ho-hum charge that new white-knight governor Eliot Spitzer tried to plant a story about Senate Republican leader Joe Bruno's state-subsidized travel.

After decades of editorial-page barking in every newspaper in the state about the cesspool Albany has become, it was doubtless surprising to learn that the town's biggest scandal—deplored on one tabloid cover after another—was the alleged fixing of a few paragraphs, not in the fine print of a billion-dollar contract or in a pork-barrel add-on to the state budget, but in a front-page story this July in the capital's premier daily, the Times Union.

As most people know by now, Spitzer's aides had convinced the state police to cough up Bruno's embarrassing travel itineraries, which showed the senate leader hustling from private sit-downs with campaign donors and lobbyists to fundraising extravaganzas on the taxpayer dime. But what generated all the fuss were accusations that Spitzer's men had improperly used the state police as pawns in a political hit job. Polls indicate that most New Yorkers believe the governor knew more than he's admitted about his aides and their media maneuvers, but those polls also show that two-thirds of New Yorkers want state leaders to get back to real business, instinctively recognizing what it's taken three separate investigations to establish—namely that this much-ballyhooed "Troopergate" might be nothing more than bad manners or rough play. Only 12 percent in the latest Siena poll thought the Spitzer-Bruno spat was the "top priority" issue facing the state. In fact, my dentist asked the other day (as I sat immobilized in the chair ) whether it wasn't a good thing for Spitzer to be telling taxpayers that the senate leader was using a state helicopter to fly to fat-cat galas in Manhattan—a point of view that might provoke many nods of agreement, even by someone without a drill in his mouth.

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With special research assistance by Adrienne Gaffney and Tom Wiedeman

Additional research by Benjamin Bright, Benjamin Greenberg, Jan Ransom, Samuel Rubenfeld, Danielle Schiffman, and Ethan Strauss

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Few New Yorkers are innocent enough to believe that politicians don't routinely scour the landscape for dirt to dish on other politicians—especially ones who have called them, as Bruno did to Spitzer before the travel story, a "thug," a "bully," a "hypocrite," and a "rich spoiled brat." In fact, as the report by Albany District Attorney David Soares recently revealed, it was Bruno who started the ball rolling on travel scandals by denouncing a Spitzer fundraising trip to California in May, which prompted reporters to ask if the governor had used a state plane. The answer was no, but eyebrows soon arched when, just two days later, Bruno himself climbed aboard a state helicopter to fly off to a Manhattan fundraiser for the state GOP. When the Times Union pressed Spitzer communications chief Darren Dopp about that trip and another Bruno junket to a fundraiser on May 17, Dopp began collecting flight manifests and other documents—about both Bruno's and Spitzer's trips—in anticipation of a Freedom of Information Letter (FOIL) that he expected to receive from the paper.

But Dopp's subsequent efforts to issue a press release or refer the Bruno flight information to investigators were nixed by his superiors, according to Soares. As shocking as it might seem, Spitzer involved himself in his staff's anti-Bruno machinations only long enough to say that he thought any use by his office of the flight itineraries "would be an unnecessary distraction"; he did not direct either the gathering or the release of the travel documents. When Dopp finally got a FOIL, he decided himself to give the accumulated schedules to the Times Union, and so the war began.

Soares concluded, like Attorney General Andrew Cuomo and Inspector General Kristine Hamann before him, that there was nothing illegal—much less criminal—about all of the heavy breathing over Bruno going on in some quarters of the Spitzer administration. A no-slouch prosecutor who forced the resignation of State Comptroller Alan Hevesi earlier this year, Soares went a step further, telling reporters: "I do not believe there was a plot to smear Senator Bruno." He added that a continuation of the apparently endless exploitation of this crimeless controversy would be a "blatant attempt to avoid responsibility for the people's business."

The district attorney was clearly referring to the senate's announcement of a half-million-dollar investigation of its own, contracted to a Republican hit man from Washington, D.C., former federal prosecutor Joseph diGenova. Soares was no doubt also aware that the senate investigations committee—which never conducted a single probe into the dozen or so major scandals of the Pataki administration—would be hosting its third pointlessly partisan hearing about the Spitzer administration's supposed abuse of the state police within days of his report, and was promising much more to come. Compare that hyperactivity to the time, a couple of years ago, when Bruno and the committee simply shrugged their shoulders after it was revealed that the most powerful official in the state police—a lifelong friend of the then Republican governor's—had taken the Fifth Amendment to every question put to him in a federal probe of the sale of paroles for campaign contributions.

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