Who cares that the Senate Ethics Committee found in 1991 that Al D’Amato had allowed his lobbyist brother to use his office stationery to solicit multimillion- dollar Navy contracts for a client? Who cares that Miller and Armand were convicted in unrelated federal trials in the 1990s, only to have their convictions overturned on appeal? In Albany, overturned convictions can be selling points.

In the days immediately following Miller’s 1991 conviction and automatic expulsion from the assembly, he told reporters that he was moving on to a new phase in his life and didn’t expect to do jail time for stealing $300,000 from his law clients. “Maybe I’ll make some real money now,” the then 52-year-old Miller said. Having spent a lifetime watching other lobbyists at the Albany trough, Miller’s on-the-mark prediction hardly made him a prophet.

Cuomo will be inaugurated on the darkest of Albany days, and it’s not just the budget that’s broken.

Caleb Ferguson
The calm before the storm.
Caleb Ferguson
The calm before the storm.

Three scandals as large as any in my lifetime haunt the capital, and each is a tale of lobbyists at their not so menial but very venal labor.

Republicans may have just retaken the state senate, even though their longtime majority leader, Joe Bruno, was convicted of federal felonies less than a year ago. If the GOP won, they did so, in part, by hanging a new, lobbyist-laden, scandal--the award of the $3 billion, 30-year racino franchise at Aqueduct--around the necks of Bruno’s Democratic successors, Malcolm Smith and John Sampson.

Bruno was caught mimicking the lobbyists that owned him, taking $3.2 million in “consultant” fees to steer union pension and state funds to his clients, though the media subordinated his proven criminal enterprise this fall to fresher Aqueduct headlines about still-unproven Democratic offenses. As tawdry as Smith and Sampson appear in the Aqueduct saga, they are boy scouts compared to Bruno, whose trial record depicted a breathtaking criminal enterprise.

One former counsel to Bruno, Kenneth Riddett, testified that he instructed GOP senators to have their financial disclosure forms hand-delivered to the ethics commission as a way of avoiding federal mail fraud statutes. By the time he testified, Riddett had his own lobbying shop, starting off with the Trial Lawyers Association, a Democratic stronghold in search of a Republican ally. It has long been legend that the GOP senate, much like Tom Delay’s House, pointed petitioners at their door to designated lobbyists, like a setter aiming its muzzle at game.

Lobbyists like Featherstonhaugh also made appearances on the witness stand. “Feathers,” as he is called, never bothers to dust a story up. He sees nothing wrong with being in a real estate partnership with the Senate leader he lobbies, Joe Bruno, or his brother Peter, or representing the Bruno family business, or doing a land deal with Bruno’s son, Kenny, or hiring Kenny as a lobbyist in his firm. (Kenny Bruno went on to Wilson Elser and then to his own lobbying firm, where he was clearing $50,000 a month.)

Feathers testified that he introduced the senator to a partner in a local investment firm because the businessman “wanted to see if he could enter into some kind of relationship” with Bruno, which he did, retaining the senator as a “consultant.” Then Feathers’s friend introduced Bruno to another businessman, who also retained him, giving birth to the business that ultimately convicted Bruno. Lobbyist John Cordo, who once worked for Feathers and was treated “like a son” by Bruno, also testified, confirming that a pivotal bill he handled granting correction officers some of the same pension benefits as police officers and firefighters was only passed after the correction union invested in a Bruno-tied investment firm, though he claimed he didn’t know Bruno was a consultant to the firm.

“I would see Joe socially,” Feathers recalled, unconsciously defining the art of the Albany schmooze. “He would talk primarily about his back swing and what trail he was going to ski. Those were our two big conversations.” Feathers wasn’t shy about saying what bored Bruno, either, simultaneously debunking the “three-in-a-room” decision-making legend, insisting that it was more like six-to-seven in a room, counting counsels. “Leaders would not even know about some legislation,” he testified, adding: “I'm sorry for that senator.”

Bruno didn’t testify, saving his long-winded declaration of innocence for the sentencing judge in May. “How dare anyone say I’m not worth $20,000 a month?” the lobbyist senator wailed, incensed by the testimony of one client who said Bruno did no work. “I know consultants that get paid $50,000 a month for doing what I was doing.”

It is a bipartisan whine, with Bruno echoing a Democratic assemblyman, Anthony Seminerio, who was convicted, like Bruno, of lobbyist envy.  “I was doing favors for these sons of bitches there,” Seminerio told another convicted assemblyman in a secretly taped conversation. “They were making thousands.” So, said Seminerio, he decided, “Screw you—from now on, I’m the consultant.” Bruno explained, without a clause of contrition at his sentencing hearing: “I watched people on the outside who had been in leadership positions earning millions of dollars a year.”

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