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He's honest, straightforward—"the kind of guy you want to see succeed," says a veteran lawman who worked with Donovan over the years.
The problem kicks in when you try to figure out how he's going to live up to his pledge to be the new sheriff of Albany. That, says Donovan, is why he's running. "Albany is broken," he said when he announced back in May, with Mayor Bloomberg beside him on the courthouse steps. "New Yorkers deserve better." He vows "to root out corruption and restore integrity back in our state government." And there won't be any slaps on the wrist when he's in charge. Every public-corruption case he brings, he says, will be charged as a felony.
But ask Donovan's team about his experience at tackling wayward politicians or their cronies since he became D.A. in 2004 and there's a pause. "You have to understand, we operate on a much smaller playing field," said Bill Smith, spokesman for the District Attorney. "We have three and a half Assembly members, three Council members, one and a half state senators, and one congressman. So if you're asking in terms of specific elected officials, we haven't had any of these."
There were cases made against corrections officers caught faking workers' compensation claims, a biology teacher who stole lab money, a rap star who cheated on his taxes, a crooked auto-body shop owner, and a ring of Nigerian identity thieves. But politically wired schemers? They never made it on to Donovan's docket.
Fair's fair, though, so let's stipulate this: Other than Manhattan's now-retired legend, Robert Morgenthau, there aren't too many D.A.s who actually chase after the politically influential. Brooklyn's Joe Hynes went on a brief tear, taking down Democratic county leader Clarence Norman and a handful of judges. Then Vito Lopez, a Hynes ally, took over the local Democratic machine and the D.A.'s guns went silent.
But another reason for the big question mark hanging over Dan Donovan's clean-up vows is that ever since he landed in Staten Island in 1996, all he had to do to spot a potential corruption case was look up from his desk.
The former narcotics prosecutor started that year as chief of staff to borough president Guy Molinari, long the island's most influential politician as well as the guiding hand behind Donovan's career. When it comes to ethics, however, Molinari has never sweated the small stuff. A year after Donovan got to the office, a Molinari staffer pled guilty to helping the Genovese crime family shake down vendors at Little Italy's San Gennaro street fair. Leonard Cerami, whose father-in-law was a Genovese capo, had one of the great patronage titles of all time: "seat belt coordinator." But everyone knew his real job was to drive Molinari around when needed and serve as an all-around political go-fer.
Donovan also must've wondered about another Molinari favorite. Daniel Carrique was officially listed as a $51,000-a-year coordinator for the Department of Citywide Administrative Services. But he spent his days either sitting outside Molinari's office, or as a roving Republican operative. While on city time, Carrique spent December 2000 in Florida, helping to organize GOP protests against the presidential recount. "We don't know what he does," his supervisor lamented at a 2002 hearing after his agency finally sought to fire him. "He's working for the Staten Island borough president."
Donovan's ethics antenna might have also tingled when Molinari's business pals came calling. In 1997, the Daily News detailed how the borough president was the steadiest backer of a disastrous development scheme advanced by a longtime friend to build housing for the Navy near the planned Homeport. The project became one of the island's great fiascos. Taxpayers ultimately paid $126 million to Molinari's developer pal, while getting nothing in return. Meanwhile, the News revealed, Molinari had made a $100,000 profit by selling his own parcel to the builder, Robert Mazzuoccola, whose partners in other projects included a pair of Colombo crime family captains.
Then there are the DiTommaso brothers, Frank and Peter, whose Interstate Industrial Corporation played the central role in disgraced ex–police commissioner Bernie Kerik's undoing. Molinari was lifelong friends with the DiTommaso family, and while he was borough president the company won choice local contracts, including pouring the foundation for the city's new minor league stadium, and $73 million to cover the Fresh Kills landfill. Long after the FBI and others accused the DiTommasos of playing ball with the mob, Molinari stuck by them, even becoming their $25,000-a-month lobbyist after he left city office.
Kerik was another Interstate booster, and when investigators first raised questions, he went to bat for the company with city officials, including Donovan. "I've explained everything to Dan Donovan, chief of staff," Kerik said in a 1999 e-mail. Donovan, a friend of Kerik's who vouched for him when he was being considered for Homeland Security secretary, later told Newsday that he didn't remember the conversation.
Term limits forced Molinari from office in 2001, and Donovan moved up a notch to deputy borough president. His new boss, James Molinaro, was even more tone-deaf to corruption than his predecessor, if that's possible. When a pair of Colombo crime family players whom he knew from the neighborhood pled guilty in a mob racketeering case, Molinaro wrote a letter—on official stationery—urging the judge to go easy.