David Paterson's World Series of Whoppers

How a governor threw himself out of the game

No matter how or where he ends up, the lasting image of David Paterson will be the shot of him in his earnest-blue suit, right arm raised, swearing that he's always played it straight with us. "I never abused my office, not now, not ever," he said, his wife, Michelle, beside him looking ready to jump out of her skin.

That was back on February 26, when, under siege from escalating scandal, he summoned the cameras to say that he'd decided not to run for election. Sighs of relief were instantly heard, this being the first hint of sanity from the governor in some time. Down 3-1 in the polls, he had no chance of winning. At least he was admitting it.

The bigger question was whether he would resign, and that's where he pulled his arm-in-the-air stunt, giving us his solemn oath. "The truth will prevail," he insisted. The facts, he said, would show that he never tried to cover up a top aide's assault on a girlfriend last Halloween.

More than a whiff of scandal: Paterson
More than a whiff of scandal: Paterson

What we didn't learn until a few days later was that this wingnut of a governor had already raised his arm to take an actual sworn oath—the kind that sends people to jail when they're dumb enough to lie. This happened just two days earlier, on February 24, when State Commission on Public Integrity lawyers went to the governor's Capitol office to take Paterson's testimony in another little scandal, one most people had forgotten all about.

The oath was administered by a notary public who also took down a stenographic account of the governor's responses to questions about how he came to obtain tickets to sit behind home plate at Yankee Stadium on the first night of last fall's World Series.

Paterson had had nearly four months to get his story straight about this sorry little episode. The morning after the October 28 game, the New York Post's Master of Gotcha, Fred Dicker, had called to ask who paid for the seats. This unleashed its own World Series of bungles. Paterson insisted that he and his four guests—his teenage son, his son's pal, and two aides—had been invited by Yankees president Randy Levine when the two had appeared on a pre-Series cable-TV show.

Levine is a former top deputy to Rudy Giuliani, who was then toying with the idea of running for governor. He delightedly shot that one down. "He's a liar," Levine told Dicker. Paterson then proceeded to boot the ball around the field, making more errors on one story than both teams made in the entire Series. Via his beleaguered spokesman, Peter Kauffmann, the governor offered clashing accounts before finally forking over $850 for two tickets at their $425 face value.

The funny thing is, most people don't begrudge governors good seats at these kinds of events, even when they're provided by clubs eager to curry favor. You kind of expect to see the state's top citizen there, and all the better if he's feeding hot dogs to a couple of kids he's brought along for the occasion.

But there are rules about this sort of thing, policies made even stricter by Paterson's own former boss, that other disaster-courting governor, Eliot Spitzer. When Dicker's story broke on November 2, it was taken as one more instance of Paterson's ham-handed ability to turn even a happy occasion into ruins. Good-government groups griped, and state ethics watchdogs pledged to investigate. And everyone else promptly forgot about it.

Hindsight, aided by devastating articles by a SWAT team of New York Times reporters, puts these events in a little better perspective. For one thing, one of the aides attending the game was David "D.J." Johnson, the governor's six-foot-seven confidante, who, as he watched the Phillies beat the Yankees, was just three days away from angrily bouncing his girlfriend off the wall in her Bronx apartment.

Presumably, it didn't put Johnson in a better mood that he had to spend the next two days helping the governor change his story every 15 minutes over a penny-ante conflict-of-interest matter. Testimony taken by the ethics panel shows that Johnson and Paterson sat in the governor's office cooking up story after story each time Dicker asked another question. Why they didn't just buffalo the Post and quickly pay for the tickets is a mystery. But tying yourself up in knots over chump change has been par for the course in Patersonland.

Whatever Johnson's frame of mind, that Saturday evening found him at his longtime girlfriend's apartment, where she was preparing to celebrate Halloween. According to police reports unearthed by the Times, Johnson ripped off her costume, choked her, and slammed her into either a mirror or a dresser. A badly rattled Sherr-una Booker picked up the phone and called 911, thus setting in motion David Paterson's ultimate undoing.

That night, the governor was holding his own costume party at the Albany executive mansion. He and his wife handed out treats to local kids. He issued a jokey statement saying he was wearing a Jason mask, because "I'm serious about cutting the budget." Paterson is famous for his jokes. His quips come as fast as a stand-up comic. But he's also prone to mistake a serious moment for a laugh-line opportunity. Along with an implacable stubborn streak, it's one of many habits that make him his own worst enemy.

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