The Reinvention of Andrew Cuomo

A Prince of Darkness turns White Knight

Harding may still catch a break, providing he helps himself first. The plea agreement allows the AG to reduce the charges if Harding cooperates fully in the ongoing probe. The target here is Morris, whose indictment last March along with Hevesi's former pension investment chief, was the trip wire for the massive investigation. It's one of several pieces of unfinished business that Cuomo would presumably like to wind up before announcing for governor sometime this spring.

Another is the matter of Steven Rattner, the billionaire investment banker and Democratic angel who quit his post as an Obama economic adviser last summer as the pension fund probe was heating up. Rattner has not been charged, but his name surfaced in one of the many nutty aspects of the case: His Quadrangle Group investment firm not only paid Morris a $1.1 million fee for "finding" it a $100 million deal with the state, he also had an affiliate buy the DVD rights to a screwball movie produced by the pension fund director's brothers.

Cuomo also has to decide what to do about another high-profile donor, a hedge fund operator named George Hall whose Clinton Group has donated more than $250,000 since 2005 to Democratic candidates. In 2006, Clinton was part of a three-way joint venture that landed a whopping $750 million of state funds. Cuomo has charged that the deal was manipulated by Morris and the pension fund chief to generate huge fees. One joint venture partner has already pled guilty; another agreed in July to fork over $2 million as its share of the proceeds.

In 2008, after the probe was under way, Hall donated $10,000 to Cuomo's campaign committee. Cuomo's people say donations are sometimes not returned immediately in order not to alert subjects that they might be under investigation. In Hall's case, he got his money back in October—after a Bloomberg News reporter asked about it.

Campaign money is a complicated issue for Cuomo. He has steadily condemned the "pay to play" atmosphere of state politics. He's also called for a new system to cap campaign donations, à la the city's Campaign Finance Board. At the same time, he's raised a ton of money the old-fashioned, pre-Obama way: from big donors.

Inside the huge tub of $16 million he's sitting on, the average donation is somewhere north of $1,000. Almost 600 donors have written checks for $5,000 or more. More than 50 have given over $50,000. It's hard to identify all of them because, under the state's wide-open rules, it's still perfectly legal to split up donations among different corporate entities, whose principals aren't even disclosed to the public.

This is the same anything-goes kind of politics condemned as "disgraceful" 20 years ago by the Feerick Commission on Government Integrity, a panel appointed by then governor Mario Cuomo in response to an earlier generation's campaign scandals.

Scroll through the rolls of Andrew Cuomo's givers and you can find most of the permanent government, a bipartisan crowd of power brokers and fixers who are used to getting their way and are happy to pay for the privilege.

Those two dozen checks for $5,000 apiece from corporations out on Union Turnpike in New Hyde Park? That's Leonard Litwin, longtime pillar of landlord power. Those half-dozen donations of $10,000 and $5,000 from companies on Oak Street in Garden City? It's Al Benjamin, developer pal of Alfonse D'Amato, the former senator turned lobbyist who has been rainmaking for Cuomo 2010.

Here's the Dolan family and Cablevision, dropping $55,000 into the bucket. The Long Island company even rated a personal visit to its Bethpage headquarters in April, the same day that Cuomo held a fundraiser at swank Oheka Castle in Huntington.

Given the system that exists, however, you need multiples of millions to be taken seriously as a statewide candidate. And Cuomo's argument is that any would-be favor-seekers won't get to first base with him because he has more than enough dough to be able to tell them to get lost. His eight-figure war-chest makes him a pressure-resistant "mini-Bloomberg," his crew argues.

"Can you look at my filings and see a lot of the usual suspects?" says Cuomo. "Yeah. That's the campaign system we now have, which desperately needs to be changed."

To ease the sting, Cuomo has imposed a rule that his campaign will not take donations from anyone—other than their attorneys—with matters pending before his office. Donors are asked to sign cards certifying it.

"It's not perfect," he says. " 'Perfect' is no contribution ever." But politics, he adds, "shouldn't be an occupation only for billionaires or millionaires. At the end of the day, you are never going to get past one variable—that you have to elect people who you believe are going to do the right thing. There will always be a force trying to influence them, either monetarily, or politically, or electorally. And that is why you have to elect people who you believe are going to act from the proper motivation."

Last week, the day before he knew a Times story was likely to run describing his agency's dealings with several developer donors, Cuomo held a telephone press conference to try to show where his heart is. He announced plans to sue Vantage Properties, one of the Wall Street–driven operators that scooped up thousands of city working-class apartments and then began harassing tenants out. "We understand their calculus," Cuomo said. "The only thing in the way is the law."

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