Lack of Discipline

Bloomberg (right) with top aide Vincent La Padula at City Hall last week
photo: Cary Conover

In March 1998, the city's Department of Investigation quietly filed away a pair of memorandums detailing two completed inquiries into alleged abuses, both involving a rising young star in the Giuliani administration named Vincent La Padula.

The memos documented the apparent theft of city property—the agency termed it "misappropriation"—and the use of city personnel, on city time, for private projects, including fixing computers at Giuliani's 1997 campaign office. Yet La Padula was never disciplined for the episodes and it wasn't until two years after the findings that he was asked to make restitution to the city, amounting to several hundred dollars. Even then it was done in secret.

The run-in with city investigators did nothing to dim his rising star. La Padula, who started as a 22-year-old, $35,000-a-year city office assistant after working on Giuliani's 1993 campaign, went on to serve his boss as a top aide in City Hall and later as a $162,800-a-year senior adviser to Mayor Bloomberg.

His casual attitude about city resources also remained unchanged. In July 2000, four months after being confronted about his past abuses, La Padula went on a city-paid vacation to the Pacific Northwest with his friend Russell Harding, another ex-Giuliani aide who has since been indicted on charges of stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from the city.

Court records from Harding's case show that La Padula admitted to investigators that the trip's purpose was pleasure, not business. But he has refused to say whether or not he has ever repaid the city for the $1,410 airline ticket or for hundreds more in hotel and car rental charges incurred by the pair during their jaunt. Investigators say the matter remains under review.

When La Padula, now 32, announced his resignation this month from his post as adviser to the mayor to take a job with an investment bank, he brushed aside questions about that escapade.

"It is absolutely not relevant and has nothing to do with my leaving," he told Timothy Williams of the Associated Press.

Mayor Bloomberg, who has publicly chastised and fired others whom he accused of failing to intervene in the Harding scandal, has also dismissed questions about his own aide's involvement. The mayor has been so trusting of La Padula that, according to several sources, he asked him to look out for his daughter Emma when she joined his campaign and administration. Bloomberg and La Padula are so close that, in a story La Padula proudly told The New York Observer last week, when the mayor was in need of a change of socks this fall, he had La Padula take his pair off so the mayor could put them on. "He has been an invaluable adviser," Bloomberg told reporters when asked about the aide's departure.

La Padula's announcement came just four days after the DOI memos were released in response to a five-month-old Voice Freedom of Information request. City officials said there was no link between the two events.

As he has consistently since the Voice first revealed the Harding trip last year, La Padula refused to be interviewed.

The DOI memos, however, reveal that La Padula, who started political life as a fresh-out-of-college campaign aide to former Staten Island borough president Guy Molinari, abused his office more than once.

In one of the memos, investigators reported that they had received complaints from two unnamed individuals that in March 1997 La Padula had ordered an employee of the city's Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications to bring equipment and supplies to a campaign office.

Although the identity of the campaign was redacted from the memo by DOI lawyers, records show that La Padula had left city government just weeks earlier to work full-time as deputy campaign manager for Giuliani's re-election bid. Previously he had worked as an $82,500-a-year chief of staff to Ralph Balzano, the former commissioner of DoITT ("Do-it," as the agency is called), and in another top post at the city's Economic Development Corporation. In addition, sources familiar with the events confirmed to the Voice that the city supplies went to Giuliani's campaign.

Investigators determined that La Padula had "contacted an agency employee and requested a file cabinet (two-drawer Herman Miller-type), a small square table, and a box of office supplies (pens, desk organizers, clips, etc.) from DoITT's inventory." The supplies were delivered to the campaign by an agency employee, investigators learned. And officials at DoITT knew all about it. "The request and subsequent delivery was known to the [DoITT] employee's immediate supervisors," the memo stated.

Agency officials told DOI they had steered clear of the affair because of La Padula's former status in the agency. "Managers interviewed concerning this matter stated they did not get involved in La Padula's request, because he had been, in fact, the former Chief of Staff to the commissioner of the agency," the investigators reported.  

Other problems popped up during the probe.

Investigators received complaints that employees were forced to work on a particular task. Again, DOI officials blacked out the name of the project on the memo, but interviews with several people knowledgeable about the agency identified the task as the mayor's re-election campaign. DOI interviewed several employees about the allegation but only one person stated he was told to work on the project. "The employee, who requested anonymity, advised investigators that he felt he had 'no choice' and was coerced to perform this assignment," investigators wrote. Managers, on the other hand, denied any coercion, stating that employees participated of their own free will.

The investigation looked into several lesser abuses by lower-level employees as well. It was given a name, "Follow the Leader," and a number, 9707665. Recommendations were made to DoITT officials to correct "recordkeeping deficiencies" uncovered during the probe. It was then filed as a closed case.

The second DOI probe was dubbed "Power Failure" and dealt with similar allegations involving La Padula, made this time in anonymous letters to the investigative agency. Again, investigators confirmed the charges.

In April 1997, a month after the office supplies were sent to the campaign, investigators determined that La Padula had arranged to have technicians from DoITT travel, on city time, to the campaign office to help him with computer problems there.

This time, the memo states, the technicians were given the go-ahead to carry out the work directly by Balzano. Like La Padula, Balzano owed his job to politics. When Balzano won the post as DoITT commissioner, his key backer was another Republican Giuliani supporter, Bronx state senator Guy Velella.

According to the memo, the city technicians drove to the campaign office in an agency car, used an agency permit to park, and then spent a total of four hours and 15 minutes of the workday dealing with the campaign's computers. While there, they also installed Microsoft Word software on the machines—software that had been licensed to the city agency for its exclusive use. Probers determined that the visit never showed up on agency vehicle logs or on the employees' time sheets.

Investigators were also told by their tipsters that La Padula had used a city employee to run personal errands and perform work at his home. Although most of the memo regarding that aspect of the probe was redacted, investigators reported that La Padula acknowledged asking two DoITT workers to use a city-owned van to deliver a couch to his residence. La Padula assured DOI that the workers were friends and that the task was carried out after working hours. Citing the agency's record-keeping failures, investigators said they were unable to determine if this was true.

The memo ended with a recommendation that the agency's commissioner be advised of the findings "for review and appropriate corrective action." And then the case was closed.

Investigators calculated the value of the computer service and the software provided to the campaign office as $619. The office equipment, they estimated, was worth $579.95. The matter was not referred for possible prosecution, and, as is DOI's practice, enforcement was left up to the agency involved.

Although the investigators didn't mention it, Giuliani's campaign hardly needed any free help. The same month the computer techs were dispatched to the campaign, Giuliani's re-election fundraising reached $11 million, the most ever for a mayoral candidate at that time. Giuliani declined comment.

The issue didn't arise again until February 2000, after La Padula had taken a new position with the city's Department of Environmental Protection that required a background check by DOI.

At that time, La Padula and Balzano were both summoned to separate meetings at the agency. "Each was advised that the DOI investigations had substantiated, as it related to them, that on three separate occasions, La Padula had engaged in conduct that resulted in the misuse and/or misappropriation of DoITT personnel or supplies," a follow-up memo issued in May 2000 stated. They were then asked to pay up.

La Padula agreed to pay for the office supplies and van use, according to the memo. But he argued that responsibility for repayment for the computer assistance and software provided to the campaign fell on the shoulders of his former boss, Balzano, as commissioner. At his own meeting with investigators, Balzano acknowledged approving the computer assistance to the campaign, but said he had intended for the work to be voluntary and carried out after hours. Nevertheless, he agreed to pay the $619 stemming from the incident, without admitting any wrongdoing.

Balzano, 66, who now works as a private consultant, did not respond to several messages.

Those in the higher strata of city government who have worked alongside Vinnie La Padula describe him as a loyal, affable bulldog who gets tough jobs done. In contrast, several people who worked under him say he is more bully than bulldog, more arrogant than affable, a brash young man enthralled with his closeness to power and the perks of office. A similar description has been applied by many in city government to two of his close friends from the Giuliani years: Harding, the son of Liberal Party leader Ray Harding, and his former roommate, Tony Carbonetti, who went on to become Giuliani's chief of staff in City Hall and with whom La Padula shared an apartment on Manhattan's Upper East Side for several years.  

The three were often together, traveling to casinos in Atlantic City and Paradise Island in the Bahamas. Harding is now undergoing psychiatric evaluation at a federal prison hospital in North Carolina after threatening to kill himself on the eve of his trial. Carbonetti is a top executive at Giuliani Partners, the former mayor's consulting company.

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