The Truth Behind Troopergate

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

Just as there's no sign that Bruno, whose senate majority has shrunk to two seats, will let his Spitzer jihad go, so too with the hyperventilating New York Post, whose favorite state political party is facing an Armageddon of sorts in the 2008 senate elections. The Paper of Rancor—which has printed such sourceless front-page fantasies as a breathless account of Spitzer aides meeting in dark limousines parked on the side of the road in the dead of night to avoid detection by investigators—buried Soares's findings behind another loopy Brady Bunch sex spoof.


As thin as the scandal itself has proven to be, the story behind it is a window into the new Albany, which Eliot Spitzer promised would change on day one, and which is convulsing—in a way that's like nothing I've ever seen in 30 years of covering the state capital—over the first real challenge to its insider-party game in modern history. Spitzer's determination to take the senate away from the party that has controlled it for all but six months of the last 80 years is an electroshock to the state's political culture—disturbing not just to New York's Republican remnant, but even to the assembly Democrats, who, like prior governors of both parties, have protected and prospered from a divided legislature. What we are hearing in the high-pitched posturing over this scandal is the death wail of an incestuous bipartisan combine, threatened by a governor who starts his day with a 5 a.m. run and who knows, after eight years as attorney general and nine months as governor, what it takes to push his taut frame through a stiff Albany wind.


Details

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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

The man who turned what might have been a bruising but quick street fight into a protracted cold war is Albany's other new face, Andrew Cuomo, who was elected attorney general last year by promising to replicate Spitzer's eight-year record in that office. It is Cuomo's 53-page report on these dueling charges, released July 23, that is still framing this controversy.

Cuomo is an unmistakably awkward fit for a probe of these particular charges, since his own family has long been intimately associated with allegations of abusing state-aircraft privileges, and since he's achieved something of a reputation himself as a master at the art of shadowy handouts to reporters.

Twenty-five years ago, at the age of 25, the Kid Wonder managed Mario Cuomo's triumphant gubernatorial campaign, helping his father to push an incumbent Democratic governor (Hugh Carey) out of the race early; then to defeat, in the September primary, a New York City mayor (Ed Koch) who once led the polls by 25 points; and finally to overcome a death-penalty-advocating, multimillionaire Republican candidate (Lew Lehrman) in the general election that November. When it was all over, young Andrew became a "special adviser" to the governor, got a degree at Albany Law School, and became so immersed in the state's freewheeling political culture that he, his mother, or his siblings rode the friendly skies in state aircraft—without the governor—a total of 62 times in the first seven years of the 12-year administration. One or more members of the family rode with the governor more than 700 times in the same period—after which time, no comprehensive accounting of the family airline ever appeared.

The Daily News did break an "Air Cuomo" story in the 1994 gubernatorial campaign, revealing that over the course of a single year, the governor's wife and daughter had taken a combined 44 trips. A year after Cuomo lost, he settled a lawsuit brought by the state GOP and paid thousands to the state for his family's high-flying excesses. Ironically, Mario Cuomo also used the state aircraft to cement his cross-party alliance with Ralph Marino, who preceded Bruno as senate majority leader. Former Air Force colonel Karl Rodenhauser, who ran the state fleet under Cuomo, says now that the governor's chief of staff approved standby weekly flights for Marino, who was flown to Farmingdale, Long Island, where he lived and maintained a law practice, as soon as the senate session ended. Marino was such a Cuomo crony that he tried to block George Pataki's 1994 nomination, supporting a candidate who'd lost to Cuomo four years earlier by 33 points.

Stan Lundine, lieutenant governor for eight years under Cuomo, recalls the Marino shuttle, as well as the Cuomos' frequent-flier pattern. "Did we ever schedule a fundraiser and then come up with cover events to justify the use of a state plane?" he asks, addressing the question that Bruno's use of the aircraft has raised. "Sure. But I don't think we ever took a plane just to a political event." Lundine also sees the quandary Andrew faced in this investigation. "If he had arrived at a different conclusion," he says, referring to the attorney general's decision that Bruno's flights weren't improper, "he would have been subject to scrutiny because of his and Governor Cuomo's use of the plane."

In fact, the travel charges against the Cuomos didn't end in 1994. Shortly after Andrew Cuomo announced his unsuccessful campaign for governor in January 2001, it was revealed that, as the secretary for Housing and Urban Development in the Clinton administration, he'd billed the federal government for 25 trips to New York in 2000—21 more visits than he made to any other state. He'd also taken a $6,000 junket to Israel—all ostensibly to prepare for his race for governor. However, neither that record, nor the "Air Cuomo" story, got in the way of Andrew attacking George Pataki for exploiting state aircraft in that campaign: "You cannot justify, ethically or legally, using taxpayer dollars to finance your political travel," he charged in 2001.

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