The Truth Behind Troopergate

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

Obviously, Soares limited himself to criminal matters in his examination of Spitzer's use of the state police, and he did the same with Bruno's trips. He left the door open on both lines of inquiry as to whether anything improper, unethical, or even illegal occurred (and he, too, apparently failed to consider the tax implications). The state's public-integrity commission, which undertook its own investigation weeks ago and is taking testimony now, will resolve the ethics question on the Spitzer charges. But since it is limited by law to probing executive misconduct, the commission is barred from looking at anything Bruno did. (A separate body, called the legislative ethics commission, has the exclusive power to probe senate or assembly wrongdoing. Controlled by the legislature, it has never shown a flicker of interest in this or any other possible wrongdoing. )


The fact is that, when all this is over, the Spitzer administration will have had to weather three independent probes, relentless senate hearings, and a tepid look into the matter by its own inspector general, while no one will have ever genuinely examined the senator's junkets, even though it is Bruno who is being probed by the FBI for collusive conflicts, and has been since 2006. This double standard will continue because the public-integrity commission has the almost impossible job of determining whether Spitzer and his staff tried to smear Bruno without ever crossing the legal line of its authority and determining whether Bruno did abuse his aircraft privileges. Though the Spitzer media campaign can't be a smear if Bruno was in fact living large on the public tab, the commission isn't allowed to consider the evidence that might buttress that case.

The professionals, like former federal prosecutor Linda Lacewell, who worked on the Cuomo report, were no doubt genuinely offended by what they found—particularly what they saw as the misleading of the state police superintendent, Preston Felton, by Spitzer aide Bill Howard. The worst of the Spitzer-administration misconduct identified in the Cuomo report is the charge that Howard convinced Felton to produce the flight records by telling him that he had a FOIL well before the Times Union submitted one. But a close reading of the attorney general's report says only that "at some point," Howard "apparently" told Felton about the FOIL—strangely uncertain language for so central a conclusion. And Howard, who did talk extensively and without counsel to Cuomo's office, is quoted in the Soares report as saying that he thought Dopp wanted the flight information only for internal review. He says he didn't mention a FOIL to Felton—a version of events that is at odds with Felton's recollection. Assuming that Howard told Cuomo's staff the same thing, it's odd their report never mentions the denial. Soares also found no evidence that anyone in the executive chamber had any idea that Felton was operating under the misconception that he was checking these flights to service a phantom FOIL. Indeed, Felton didn't put all the records together in a package until the FOIL was actually received in late June. As trivial as this detail might seem, it's actually the heart of the alleged wrongdoing.

Details

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The other oft-repeated charge is that the state police "recreated" the itineraries, which was the loaded language used in Cuomo's report. The term suggests fabrication, though even Cuomo acknowledged that nothing was fabricated. "Recreation is a term of art," Glenn Valle, the state police counsel, told a senate committee last week, explaining that there would be nothing wrong with the police "retrieving" information they had. The itineraries on the Bruno trips that Dopp gave the Times Union were drawn from handwritten police notes that were, in Soares's view, subject to public disclosure. Valle said the police "simply filled in those itineraries" and "restored information." Valle, who was the counsel throughout the Pataki years and thus can't be considered a Spitzer tool, disputed the Bruno defense that challenged the validity of the police records and the decision to make them public: "How do you smear someone by reporting exactly what they did?"

Incredibly, Valle's charges—including his denunciation of Cuomo's report as "outright wrong" and "extremely unfair"—got short shrift in the tabloids that are driving the story. Similarly, no one knows better than the press that it is commonplace for government agencies to assemble records like this when they are sought by reporters, and that Cuomo's attempt to characterize it as an illicit manufacture of documents is absurd.

It's impossible to diagnose the reasons why Cuomo leaped to such shaky and tilted conclusions, although his disastrously premature run for governor in 2002 revealed how determined he is to succeed his father. He clearly wants to run for the top job again—maybe not as soon as 2010, but certainly by 2014, and he will do so even if Spitzer tries to make himself our third three-term governor in a row. If that sounds speculative, remember that Mario Cuomo emerged as a gubernatorial candidate well before the governor he worked for, Hugh Carey, announced that he wasn't seeking re-election in 1982.

Strangely, the only person already promoting a Cuomo candidacy is Joe Bruno, who told The New York Sun recently: "If I had to guess, someone like Andrew, who is positioned where he is at this stage of his life, at his age and background and experience, he'll be a candidate." Bruno went on to say that Cuomo is "very personable, very bright, extremely articulate, he's a pretty good package"—and also someone who would be more productive than the current governor. "We would get a lot of stuff done," Bruno said, adding that when Spitzer was attorney general, he "didn't scratch the surface" compared to Cuomo.

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