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.

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.

It was some combination of these traits that dug him into a deep hole once questions arose about his Series tickets. He told investigators he'd rather have watched the game at home on TV, "because I couldn't see it from there." This may have been a joke on his blindness, but it's hard to tell. The same goes for his insistence that one of the reasons he went was that he had a bet going with Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell.

Paterson joked about the bet—that he'd don a Phillies T-shirt for a week if the Yankees lost—the day before the game when he appeared with Levine on CNBC's Squawk Box. Paterson traveled to the show's set in New Jersey, while Levine was in a studio at Rockefeller Center. The two men were in the same law school class at Hofstra, and Levine cracked on air that "the governor got me through law school. . . . He's much smarter than me."

But that was just TV banter. When Levine was interviewed on January 26 by integrity commission attorneys, he had an icy answer when asked about his relationship with Paterson. "I see him sporadically, say, 'Hello, how are you' . . . I have never socialized with him." Other than their brief on-air exchange during the show, Levine said that he never spoke to the governor, much less invited him to the game.

Why Paterson felt obliged to say otherwise is one more missing piece of his puzzle. But when Kauffmann was put under oath by the same attorneys last week, the communications director recounted a chain of lies told by his boss about the tickets: "He said, 'Oh, I was just on CNBC with Randy Levine. We went to law school together. And he invited me." After Dicker knocked down that claim, the governor offered a new version: Levine, he said, "may have mentioned it, like a 'Hey, are you coming to the game?' "

When that, too, didn't fly, Kauffmann said Paterson and Johnson changed their tune: "They said, 'Oh, no, maybe it was somebody else with the Yankees.' "

Equally flagrant was Paterson's evolving story about whether anyone intended to pay for their tickets. Kauffmann, a former naval officer, said his advice was just to bite the bullet and shell out the dough. The governor and Johnson weren't interested. Kauffmann said he was told: "No, no. This is ceremonial. This is standard practice."

Commission attorney Jeff Schlanger, a former assistant D.A. who once prosecuted John Gotti, tried to phrase the attitude. " 'We get to go for free'?" he asked. "Correct," responded Kauffmann.

Paterson was so wedded to this account that Kauffmann e-mailed around the office a draft response to the Post stating that the governor had attended in his official capacity at the Yankees' invitation and didn't pay for the tickets.

The backtracking began after Paterson learned that another staff member who had attended the game, a deputy named Mark Leinung, had instantly volunteered to pay when told of Dicker's inquiry. Paterson then told Kauffmann, "I'll go ahead and I'll pay for my son and my son's friend." Johnson, who had insisted he was entitled to a free seat since he was there to help the governor, also finally agreed to ante up.

That might have been the end of it, at least as far as perjury charges are concerned. But Paterson then amended his story, insisting that he had always intended payment. He had his counsel, Peter Kiernan, say so in a November 13 response to the commission: "The governor expected that the Yankees would be reimbursed for all tickets other than his," he wrote.

If so, Paterson forgot to mention it to his own communications director, who was engaged in hand-to-hand combat with Dicker over the issue, which seems a little odd. Paterson also never told Kauffmann the magnificently embroidered version that he swore to before the commission on February 24: that he had written a check for $850 on the day of the game and carried it with him to the stadium. He'd left the payee line blank because he wasn't sure who to make it out to. He asked Johnson to fill that part in and mail it to the Yankees.

Unfortunately, the check was dated the day before the game and appeared to have been signed not by Paterson, but by whoever also signed Johnson's check. In what must be a first in state history, handwriting exemplars—a standard fraud-analysis technique—were used to examine the penmanship of a sitting governor. It was an obvious forgery.

The transcript shows that Paterson finished testifying at 2:25 p.m. But the day only got worse. That evening, another Times story appeared. This one cited court records that Johnson's girlfriend had accused state troopers of harassing her to drop her complaint. Paterson had dismissed earlier accounts as baseless "innuendo," part of a media smear campaign. Later that night, he suspended Johnson and asked his rival, Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, to investigate.

The integrity commission's findings were released last week. Kauffmann resigned the next day, after back-to-back interviews with the commission and Cuomo. It is a wonder that he stayed a single moment after witnessing the tickets fiasco. The commission also asked the attorney general, along with Albany's D.A., to investigate: Despite his raised right arm, it announced, Paterson had testified falsely—another first for a sitting governor.

trobbins@villagevoice.com

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