Barrett: Spitzer/Bruno Gets Spun in Strange Paterson-World

The 174-page report produced by State Inspector General Joseph Fisch last week, which provoked the resignation yesterday of Public Integrity Commission executive director Herb Teitelbaum, is all spin.

Governor David Paterson's announcement, also yesterday, that he will propose a bill to kill the commission altogether based on Fisch's report, was made without even seeking the advice of the new chair, Michael Cherkasky, that Paterson just appointed last week.

The report's central allegation--that Teitelbaum broke confidentiality laws by whispering secrets about the infamous Troopergate probe to one of his best friends--is contradicted by the sworn testimony of the only two possible witnesses to the supposed conversation. That's why it takes 174 smoky pages to create the illusion of a case. If Fisch believed he could prove his own findings, he would have referred perjury charges against Teitelbaum and his friend, Robert Hermann, to a prosecutor. Instead, all he did was demand Teitelbaum's firing.

Notably, Cherkasky, in his third day on the job, issued a statement that went way beyond a courtesy farewell and defied Fisch and Paterson.
Saying that Teitelbaum had served "with honor and diligence," Cherkasky added that Teitelbaum "oversaw the investigation of Troopergate" with "the utmost professionalism." Cherkasky, a former top state prosecutor and current chief executive of the one of the country's largest investigations firms, is so new to the dizzying world of Paterson that he may be perplexed by a governor who would ask him to chair the state's ethics commission one day and propose to abolish it a couple of days later.     

The fishy Fisch saga starts in the small apartment that city attorney Teitelbaum rented in Albany when he was named in the heyday of Eliot Spitzer to run the commission in 2007. Hermann and Teitelbaum, who had been friends for 38 years, lived in the same complex and had dinner together in Teitelbaum's apartment so often that Teitelbaum would leave the door open for him.

The problem was that Hermann was then a mid-level aide to Troopergate target Spitzer, who was suspected of having authorized his top communications aide, Darren Dopp, to drop a stinkbomb of a news story on Spitzer enemy and Senate Republican leader Joe Bruno. The story, supposedly relying on information improperly adduced from the state police (hence, Troopergate), involved Bruno's apparent misuse of state aircraft for political reasons. If Teitelbaum was back-channeling information about the probe to Spitzer through Hermann, he was not only breaching confidentiality laws, he might be obstructing justice.  

As the Fisch report tells it, when Hermann picked up one particularly juicy tidbit at Teitelbaum's in October 2007, he went to the governor's office in the city, yanked Spitzer's top aide out of a meeting and breathlessly passed the morsel on ("I know the governor needs to know this," Hermann told Lloyd Constantine, Spitzer's right hand). If Hermann thought this kind of skullduggery would ingratiate him with the governor, he got his come-uppance a day later when Spitzer saw him in the hallway, took him into a side room and bellowed: "Is Herb nuts?" Spitzer and Constantine promptly dispatched another top aide to visit Albany District Attorney David Soares, who was also investigating Troopergate (five probes of this commonplace press leak have occurred so far). The aide told Soares all about the Teitelbaum-to-Hermann-to-Constantine leak.

You might think Soares would jump all over this "betrayal" (Fisch's term), which became such a high crime last week that Paterson turned it into a rationale for demanding the resignation of the entire commission, albeit unsuccessfully. In fact, Soares had his own reason to be incensed since the inside dope that Hermann conveyed to the Spitzer inner circle was that Teitelbaum had decided to refer a perjury charge against Dopp to Soares. But Soares did ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. He called Teitelbaum and Teitelbaum denied that he'd ever told Hermann anything about Dopp. Period.

The tempest chilled in the teapot for nearly four months, when Soares suddenly resurrected it, questioned Hermann and Constantine, and then called in John Feerick, who was then the chair of the commission, the former dean of the Fordham Law School, and such a revered figure in New York ethics that he's spearheaded several ethics inquiries. Feerick and other members of the commission who's formed a special task force on Troopergate--which had a majority of Republicans on it--decided that they were undisturbed by the allegation that Teitelbaum was secretly aiding Spitzer.

What's indisputable was that Teitelbaum was so aggressively chasing Spitzer--he wound up charging Dopp and three other Spitzer aides with wrongdoing (versus zero from Soares and the IG's office)--that Feerick et al just saw this as bite-back. Soares' inaction, unlike the commission's, gets a pass from Fisch because he was the one who later asked Fisch to investigate Teitelbaum, but only after the commission posted embarrassing documents on its website about Soares' unproductive probes of Troopergate.

In any event, what Hermann told Soares was that Teitelbaum hadn't directly given him any information about Dopp. Hermann claimed he walked into the apartment that night through an open door, that Teitelbaum was in the bedroom on the phone, and that he went over to get himself a drink and noticed a yellow pad on the table. He read Teitelbaum's notes, which he said "referred to a contact between Herb and the DA with regard to alleged inconsistencies" by Dopp. Most of Fisch's report is consumed by convoluted attempts to prove how impossible this scenario is, including long passages from conflicting witnesses about whether Teitelbaum ever took notes, and ridicule about how Hermann could have extrapolated as much as he swears he did from the limited notes he claims he saw. It reads like a plot from a game of "Clue."

No wonder the commission--which consists of three former judges (one from the state's highest court) and three former U.S. Attorneys--decided not to take action against Teitelbaum, a highly respected lawyer who denied he'd done anything wrong. The witness Fisch relies on, Constantine, wound up throwing up his hands, admitting that he didn't know how Hermann came by the Dopp scuttlebutt. "I went away from the conversation knowing that he got it from Herb Teitelbaum," testified Constantine, "and, you know, whether that was by e-mail, conversation, by semaphore, by sign language, I don't know, I just don't know." Somehow, Fisch couldn't find room in 174 pages of speculation for that quote.

Fisch does make a far more convincing case that Teitelbaum may have been a bit loose-lipped with Hermann on Troopergate matters of far less significance, using Hermann to convey his insistence to Spitzer aides that the governor's office cooperate more extensively and quickly with the probe. If he did that, it was more a push than a leak, but it might have deserved a slap on the wrist from Fisch.

Albany is embarrassed by the Troopergate and Teitelbaum scandals, both of which involve schmoozing allegations, lapses of the tongue. It is a town proud of big buck blights like the pension fund ripoffs that have led to so many Andrew Cuomo indictments, or the criminal charges Bruno faces that dwarf questions about his use of a helicopter. If the worst Fisch can find in this capitol of collusion is a choice between a scribble and a whisper, he's more Clouseau than crusader.     

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