The Reinvention of Andrew Cuomo

A Prince of Darkness turns White Knight

But campaign money obscures even the best of intentions. And when the score is being measured in dollars raised, tough questions often go unasked.

Shortly before Thanksgiving, for instance, Cuomo attended a campaign fundraiser on Long Island held by a prominent local attorney named Howard Fensterman. Back in 2007, Cuomo had decided not to take donations from Fensterman, who had been serving as his Long Island campaign finance chairman. The reason was a report in Newsday that Fensterman was trying to become partners with a health care businessman then under investigation by the AG's office in a wide-ranging scheme involving home health care fraud.

Fast-forward to last fall and here is Fensterman again raising money for the campaign. The largest donor at the November 24 Cuomo event was the businessman in question, a major nursing home operator named Ben Landa, who contributed at least $6,000 in checks drawn on his various corporate entities. Three weeks after the fundraiser, Landa signed an agreement with Cuomo's office to pay $3.7 million, without admitting wrongdoing, to settle the attorney general's fraud probe.

Asked if the donations violated the AG's pledge not to take money from those with matters pending before his office, aides acknowledged that the contributions had slipped through the cracks. "They are being returned," said one. Fensterman's own fundraising was OK, they said, since he had withdrawn his application to become partners with Landa.

The real-life lesson here, though, for a would-be governor is that contributions are often just the opening gambit. Back in the 1990s, Landa was even more generous with his checkbook to then governor Pataki, who responded by placing Landa on the state's Public Health Council. There, Landa hit on the idea that mentally ill patients could be released to adult homes who would then keep them in locked wards. State health officials agreed and, as luck would have it, hundreds of such patients wound up as paying guests at several of Landa's adult homes.

Those abysmal conditions later became part of the disturbing series that won a Pulitzer Prize for Clifford Levy of the New York Times. Levy's stories about the Dickensian adult homes appeared just as the 2002 gubernatorial race was getting under way. Cuomo and McCall held dueling press conferences where they both accused the governor of failing the public.

"This is a tragedy," Cuomo said then. "This is a fundamental governmental failure." The kind of thing he may soon get his chance to fix.

trobbins@villagevoice.com

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